Australians who suffer from moderate obsessive compulsive disorder could be treated just as effectively by a virtual therapist as a face-to-face practitioner, according to research to be released by the Australian Psychological Society on Tuesday.
About 500,000 Australians suffer from the debilitating mental health disorder but only one-third receive treatment.
Professor Michael Kyrios, director of the ANU Research School of Psychology and president of the Australian Psychological Society, said an evaluation of online treatments proved it could be as effective as face-to-face therapy in people with low to moderate OCD.
“I was not a believer,” he said. “I was always of the view that you needed to have face-to-face therapy to have any impact on their wellbeing but it does work and it works really well as a form of early intervention.”
Australia is regarded as a world leader in e-therapy, with programs aimed at assisting people with OCD using interactive cognitive behavioural therapy.
Professor Kyrios’ research has found that e-therapy can reach people who don’t traditionally seek help for mental health problems, as well as those in remote areas.
People with OCD endure symptoms for an average of seven years before seeking help, with the condition generally becoming chronic if left untreated. In about 50 per cent of cases symptoms first appear when in the sufferer is in their teens and are defined by recurrent and persistent thoughts and repetitive behaviours performed according to rigid rules.
Sufferers include soccer player David Beckham, actress Jessica Alba and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes.
Constant hand washing is one of the most common forms of ritualised behaviour, along with checking of windows or doors and electrical appliances but OCD can also manifest itself in intrusive and repetitive thoughts.
“It’s not just the physical checking, there’s a lot of mental checking too,” Professor Kyrios said. “Did I do this, did I do that, did I do it well? These people are highly stressed. They have high levels of depression. They lose their sense of self in these intrusive thoughts.”
Professor Kyrios, who will present his findings at the National Psychology Week conference at NSW Parliament House on Tuesday, warned that online cognitive behavioural therapy might not be suitable for people with more severe OCD.
“The more complicated it is, the more time it will take to treat,” he said.
“But if we can get to people through e-therapy before they get to the severe stage, I think it would save a lot of money and a lot of professional time.”
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 10 November 2014.