Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cyber-therapy effective in treating depression

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A soothing voice, the offer of a tissue, a gentle hand on the back -- can you imagine the experience of going to a therapist without these comforts? But we may be nearing the days when face-to-face human sessions are replaced by cyber-therapy.

A new study out of the University of Zurich treated groups of patients suffering from moderate depression with two types of therapy -- traditional, face-to-face counselling and a modified form of cognitive behavioural therapy administered through written tasks on the Internet. Patients underwent a series of eight sessions and were then evaluated for improvement. And guess what -- the Internet sessions won.

I mean, technically, patients from both groups "won" -- the degree of depression fell significantly in both groups. However, according to the university's website, "At the end of the treatment, no more depression could be diagnosed in 53 per cent of the patients who underwent online therapy -- compared to 50 per cent for face-to-face therapy." Perhaps what's more interesting, though, is what happened after the sessions. Three months later, depression continued to decline in individuals of both groups, but 15 per cent more of the cyber-therapy group saw improvement.

It's easy to dismiss such findings outright because they show yet another example of humans distancing themselves from traditionally face-to-face activities. But there might actually be some benefits to consider here.

When participants were given satisfaction surveys after the treatment, 96 per cent of the online group rated contact with their therapist as "personal," compared with 91 per cent of the face-to-face group. That at least means remote psychoanalysis isn't necessarily robotic psychoanalysis. Furthermore, patients from the online group said they continued to reread correspondence with their therapist after the sessions were over.

Certainly, it's not all positive. As anyone who has ever got into a text-fight knows, non-spoken words are easy to misconstrue. And the study raises all sorts of huge ethical questions. For one, who wants to submit their deepest emotional troubles to NSA review?

All of that aside, if medical doctors can telecommute to your hospital bedside, what's to lose by Internet therapy? Aside from the end-of-the-session hug, of course. But we have robots for that.

-- Slate

Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2013 D4

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