Technology — 26 July 2012

For years the advice has been to avoid consulting Dr Google for any medical  concerns but new Australian research is showing  online programs have marked  benefits for people experiencing mild to moderate mental health problems.

The leading mental health group the Black Dog Institute and the federal  government will launch a new online self-help service called myCompass tomorrow,  offering help for people with mild depression, stress or anxiety.

Part of the federal government’s e-mental health strategy, the program is  supported by research showing the effectiveness of online help for mild mental  health disorders.

But a leading mental health specialist has warned that online counselling  risks  allowing people with more severe problems to slip through the cracks of  the health system.

About 500 people took part in the unpublished Black Dog Institute study, with  one group given the myCompass program, another group given a placebo program and  a control group. Their levels of anxiety, depression and stress were monitored  over three months.

”For the ones who have completed the program the effects are strong,” said   Helen Christensen, the executive director of the Black Dog Institute.

”We found that myCompass was better than the sham program. The evidence is  quite strong that this program will really help people.”

Professor Christensen said the program, which can be used on a computer,  tablet or smartphone and does not require a doctor’s referral, would benefit  people who are unable to have face to face consultations due to lack of access  to services or perceived stigma about mental health problems.

A separate study published in the Journal of Medical Internet  Research in 2010, showed many people preferred online services to personal  consultations regarding mental health.

”There is still a perception that mental health symptoms are indicative of  weakness rather than lacking wellbeing,” Professor Christensen said.

”If people are anxious or depressed, especially at work, they don’t really  want other people to know.”

However, the anonymity of online therapy poses a risk that people may not  receive appropriate help, according to the Australian Medical Association’s Dr  Choong-Siew Yong.

”The danger is that it’s not easy for people to move from one of these  online programs – if they actually need more help or if their condition becomes  more serious – to the next stage of seeing someone face to face,” said Dr Yong,  the clinical director of child and adolescent mental health at the Hunter New  England Local Health District.

As first appeared in The Age, 22 July 2012

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