CD-Rom `is better than a therapist'

Psychological Society Conference

ANXIETY AND depression could soon be treated by CDs available in the shops or the public library. Psychologists have found that computers are more successful in helping some people than one-to-one specialist treatment.

In a study involving patients who had been ill with chronic and severe anxiety disorders, half improved within six months, after only three computer sessions.

"Some people find it easier to talk to a computer because of the stigma and embarrassment they feel about having these problems. They also worry they might end up on a psychiatric ward," said Dr Jim White, presenting the findings at the British Psychological Society conference in Belfast.

Dr White, a clinical psychologist from the Lansdown Clinic in Glasgow, said that when all the expertise was with the specialist people felt helpless. "We think people's conditions improved because they were were able to take control of their illness and help themselves. The computer treatment gave them a lot of information, they understood more about their condition and their self-esteem improved."

Most of the 26 people who took part in the study had been ill for over eight years and had seen a psychologist. The trial involved three 40-minute sessions spread over three weeks. Patients then went away with their self- help sheets and were assessed six months later.

Treatment sessions began with a video clip of the actor James MacPherson - who stars on TV in Taggart - introducing the system and talking about how stress and anxiety is part of everyone's life. Patients did sessions alone, responding to the computer's voice by touching the screen.

In the first session patients were assessed for the severity of their condition. They were asked about panic attacks, phobias and insomnia. If anxiety levels were low, a computer voice told them their levels were normal and encouraged them to stop the programme.

Patients who showed suicidal tendencies were automatically reported by the computer to the clinical psychology team. (When the CD is available for use at home the computer will tell those with suicidal tendencies to book an appointment with their doctor immediately.)

The second two sessions of the trial covered relaxation techniques, controlling stressful thoughts and how to deal with panic attacks, as well as hints on getting a good night's sleep and how to avoid worrying about future events.

One in six adults in the UK suffers from severe depression but 95 per cent of patients only ever see their GP. Dr White believes computer treatment could reach many people and cut the use of anti-depressants.

He says: "We would like to get to a situation where if someone goes to the GP for the first time and says they are feeling depressed, instead of the GP giving them anti-depressants they might be able to say there are other treatments and give them a CD-Rom."

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