Shannai Pearce, who runs the online youth mental health site BiteBack, says e-mental health programs are "a really good solution". Photo: Edwina Pickles

Shannai Pearce, who runs the online youth mental health site BiteBack, says e-mental health programs are “a really good solution”. Photo: Edwina Pickles

It was an illness that almost claimed her life. There were days when she couldn’t leave the house, or even get out of bed.

But for years after she was diagnosed, Shannai Pearce was too afraid to get help.

“I was scared I was going to be put in a box and labelled as nuts, and that was going to be it for the rest of my life,” Ms Pearce said.

Like one in 13 Australian children aged 11 to 17, Ms Pearce suffered from major depression. Yet up to 70 per cent of  people reporting symptoms of depression will not seek treatment, a factor contributing to Australia’s  rising suicide rate.

The stigma that persists around mental illness, the cost and availability of services, and difficulty scheduling appointments around busy lives can be barriers to getting the necessary treatment.

And, as Ms Pearce said, “the symptoms of mental health issues also generally restrict people from seeking the help they need”.

That’s why smartphones, laptops and tablets can be a lifeline, with a new study providing evidence that clinically developed online psychological therapy is effective in treating depression.

The international meta-analysis, published in JAMA Psychiatry, examined more than a dozen trials involving almost 3900 participants, finding self-guided online cognitive behavioural therapy “can provide treatment access at low cost to large numbers of individuals worldwide”.

Professor Helen Christensen, director of the Black Dog Institute and a co-author of the study, said the findings could not be ignored by health bodies.

“Our government and clinical organisations urgently need to start recommending these programs, and providing them with the same support and infrastructure as other medical treatments,” Professor Christensen said.

“People think you have to do things face to face in order for it to be an effective outcome. This research clearly shows that self-guided, online psychological therapy is effective for most people experiencing depression, regardless of severity or background.”

Ms Pearce was diagnosed with depression after attempting suicide at 14. She received no follow-up from health services and was out of her teens before she sought treatment with the help of friends and GPs. She now runs BiteBack, the Black Dog Institute’s positive psychology website, where adolescents can share their experiences and seek advice.

“I was so eager to get better but I was so fearful about using face-to-face services,” Ms Pearce said.

She said myCompass, a personalised online self-help program, helped her manage her anxiety, “which prepared me better for actually seeking a health professional’s assistance. It’s a really good solution for people who aren’t ready or able to go to face-to-face therapy.”

The easy access and privacy of e-mental health services make them particularly valuable for groups that may otherwise be unwilling or unable to seek treatment, such as young people, men, and those living in rural and regional areas.

“They can undertake treatment where and when they feel most comfortable, and programs can be easily supported by a local GP as well as mental health practitioners,” Professor Christensen said. “Consumers like the choice of being able to help themselves.”

The national depression initiative beyondblue, which has just named former prime minister Julia Gillard as its next chair, wants e-mental health to become a core component of Australia’s mental health service system.

Professor Christensen said e-mental health programs were “widely available and have been proven to significantly reduce depression and anxiety symptoms”, but the health system was not designed to cater for them.

“Changing the structure of how they are offered within general practice, so it’s built into the workflow of the organisation, is a key element,” she said.

Lifeline 131 114, MensLine 1300 789 978, beyondblue 1300 224 636

This piece by Kim Arlington was originally published on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ March 26, 2017.

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