Logging on for support


Well-structured online resources can make a real difference when it comes to mental health, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

NO MATTER what mental, physical, emotional or spiritual malady is afflicting you, the internet is awash with sites claiming to offer you the answers you need. The difficulty, of course, is in sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Which online resources are trustworthy, beneficial and genuinely illuminating, and which are little more than snake-oil sales?

Especially when it comes to mental health support, it’s worth discovering the reputable sites, because a growing body of evidence suggests that well-structured, interactive online resources can make a real difference.

For instance, a recent Lancet study of the efficacy of online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) on depression showed it more than doubled a depressed person’s chances of recovery, when compared with normal GP care.

New technologies can also be used to nip mental health problems in the bud before they have had a chance to develop – and that’s an approach which seems to work particularly well in the area of eating disorders, which are notoriously complex and difficult to treat.

A large-scale US study in 2006 found that internet-based intervention programmes, which promote positive self-esteem and body image, may prevent some high-risk college-age women from developing an eating disorder.

This week, a new Irish-based online mental health intervention programme, called SeeMySelf, is due to be launched. A joint initiative between Bodywhys, the national support organisation for people with eating disorders, and the Technology Enhanced Therapy (TET) project, which develops online mental health resources, SeeMySelf is funded by the National Digital Research Centre.

It’s aimed at people who might have underlying issues with body image, rather than a full blown eating disorder. The idea is to identify and tackle negative perceptions about self-image before they take a more sinister hold.

Geared towards net-savvy younger women and men, SeeMySelf offers a free user-friendly series of six modules, each packed with videos, quizzes, personal stories and activities, that participants work through at their own pace.

Raising awareness about media trickery such as airbrushing is a large part of the programme: in one exercise, a click of the mouse exposes the dramatic difference between falsely perfected, airbrushed images and the natural un-retouched reality, complete with wrinkles, open pores and dark under-eye circles.

But there are also sections on the relationship between food and mood, and on “mindful eating” – learning how to enjoy and appreciate every bite you eat. Charts help participants to become aware of uncomfortable feelings and to challenge negative thought patterns.

Psychologist Ruth Davidson, from TET, describes SeeMySelf as “a preventative psycho-educational” approach which draws on elements of CBT and mindfulness. It’s a step up from previous computer-based programmes.

“With older CR-Rom approaches, where people worked in a linear way from A to B to C, there was a high drop-out rate,” says Davidson. “But with SeeMySelf, people can follow their own interests, and focus on the bits they want to do.”

SeeMySelf isn’t a replacement for therapy, or for help or support from family, friends and professionals: there is no substitute for genuine human interaction. That’s why a vital part of the programme is the online supporter assigned to each participant, reviewing their progress each week.

“It keeps people connected with the material, showing that someone cares that they did the activities,” says Davidson.

There’s no geographical barrier with internet support programmes, and they are available 24/7. Ruth Ní Eidhin, from Bodywhys, says that another advantage is that they “completely take away issues around self-confidence”, offering vulnerable participants a measure of privacy.

John Sharry, who was involved in the development of SeeMySelf, agrees: “That’s one of the strengths of the programme – it offers a relatively anonymous gateway to those for whom face-to-face support is a bridge too far.”

This factor may especially appeal to the growing number of young men who are worried about their appearance. According to Phillip Hodson, of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, “If they can hide behind a computer screen, they feel less exposed”.

When it comes to quality online mental health support, it seems that what you lose in eye contact, you gain in access, confidence and participation – and all at the click of a mouse.

More information at bodywhys.ie


February 21st to February 28th 2011

The primary aim of Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW) – a global campaign initiative – is to help prevent both eating disorders and body image problems. It also aims to reduce the stigma commonly associated with such conditions,
challenging myths and misconceptions, and to promote better access to treatment. As part of EDAW, there will be a public talk, Eating Disorders in Adolescents, at 7pm on Tuesday, February 23rd, at the Lucena Clinic, 59 Orwell Road, Rathgar, Dublin 6. Speakers will include Prof Fiona MacNicholas, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, and Jacinta Hastings, chief executive of Bodywhys.