Online therapy helps beat the blues
By Nicky Phillips, ABC Science
Internet-based therapies are as successful as face-to-face treatments at combating depression, says an Australian researcher.
The research, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, found the internet treatment required less than two hours of clinician contact time compared to an average 12 to 15 hours of face-to-face treatment.
Psychiatrist and lead author Gavin Andrews, from the University of New South Wales, says most people who suffer from anxiety or depressive disorders don’t get adequate treatment.
“Medications work but they’re a weak treatment,” he says. “Cognitive therapy can be a strong treatment.”
But he admits visiting a clinician can be difficult when you consider the cost and time spent travelling or out of work.
“Internet treatments can be done at home and are much cheaper,” says Andrews.
The study monitored 45 patients with mild to moderate depression who used an internet-based treatment similar to programs a patient would receive in a face-to-face session, he says.
“It’s an evidence-based, industry standard treatment.”
The program, called Sadness, includes six online lessons, weekly email contact with a trained clinician and a moderated online forum.
The results show that after using the internet treatment, more than a third of patients no longer met the diagnosis criteria for depression – a result similar to traditional clinical treatments.
But Andrews admits he doesn’t know exactly why the treatment works?
He suggests one of the reasons may be its convenient and systematic approach.
“The treatment forced [the patients] to think and rely on themselves, because they had to post their progress to the web.”
Andrews says patients were able to take control of their recovery from depression, and unlike a therapist, a computer isn’t distracted by their patient’s problem of the day.
“People don’t log onto the computer until they’ve calmed down,” he says.
Andrews says he was surprised by the success of the program because depression patients often suffer from a lack of motivation.
“By definition people with depression lack effort and energy,” he says.
But Andrews says the correspondence they received from the patients indicated they were keen to overcome their depression.
End of the therapist?
The success of the program also brought into question traditional theories of face-to-face treatment, he says.
“We’ve always been trained that the transference between clinician and patients was the motivation for change.”
“To find that we don’t need that is a bit scary,” he says.
But Andrews says psychologists and psychiatrists won’t be out of a job because there is more to mental health professions than treating ‘stock standard’ depression and that personal contact is still important.
Andrews and his team also examined the effectiveness of internet-based treatments for other mental disorders such as anxiety, which displayed similar success.
He says ideally the internet treatment will enhance existing clinical treatments rather than replace them.
“I think this has very wide application. We are talking about rolling this out to rural divisions of general practice for GP’s to use.”
ABC Science 5 June 2009 [The Australian Broadcasting Corporation]
Related article: Therapy Goes Digital: Is the Internet good for your head?
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