Technology makes mark in treatment of mental health issues
Some experts in the area say online care can be as effective as antidepressants
Trinity College counsellor Orla McLoughlin regularly conducts patient sessions via a Trinity-created platform called SilverCloud.
The platform not only offers online communication with a trained mental health professional, but it involves a range of therapeutic programs and exercises.
“All the activities, all the content, all the practical suggestions – the student does that in their own time,” says McLoughlin. “Then you meet them virtually online once a week to check in on how they’re doing”.
Across the TCD campus in the O’Reilly Institute, one of the SilverCloud creators, Prof Gavin Doherty, explains the “e-health platform” further.
Users, he says, set up a profile page and share information about their problems with a counsellor. Video diaries can be uploaded, achievements are “unlocked” as tasks are completed, while a journal feature “provides a reflective space and becomes a vehicle for therapeutic writing exercises”.
This idea of therapists communicating with patients through online care has been gaining a following for the past decade.
Dr Mark van Ommeren, a mental health expert who works with the World Health Organisation even notes that “initial studies” he has seen have shown that in terms of dealing with depression, “these programs can be as effective as clinicians or antidepressants”.
Van Ommeren highlights the work of Australian researchers such as Dr Frances Kay-Lambkin as evidence.
The research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has helped shape a “closed” program called Shade which uses 10 once-weekly sessions of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) which are preprogrammed to deal with issues surrounding depression, alcoholism and other conditions. CBT refers to a goal-oriented, time-specific approach to tackle negative thoughts or emotions.
At present, Shade is at its trial phase with Kay-Lambkin and other colleagues checking in weekly on each patient’s progress, monitoring their mood and discussing the effectiveness of the various exercises.
Echoing van Ommeren’s words, she says: “Our participants actually report the same benefits as a face-to-face delivered CBT programme that covers the same content. That includes reductions in depression, alcohol use and cannabis use.”
DeeAnna Merz Nagel, a US-based psychotherapist and co-editor of the 2009 book, The Use of Technology in Mental Health, feels there are benefits to this form of help over more traditional methods.
“There’s privacy obviously, but with email therapy for instance, clients can go back to our exchanges months or years later which can be very helpful. This can also help therapists in framing the progress of the process.”
Merz-Nagel is also enthusiastic about the use of Second Life’s virtual environment to treat children suffering from disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome. “Kids would be much more inclined to log on to a gaming platform and communicate there than to sit down and talk to a therapist,” she says.