Mental Health Boost via Online Plans

By JODIE STEPHENS  Nov. 23, 2013, 1 a.m.

TASMANIAN researchers hope several in-development computer programs will change the way mental health services are delivered to remote and rural communities.

Researchers at the University of Tasmania are looking at innovative ways that they can help people take control of their mental health issues at home, following the success of similar interventions like the Australian National University's Moodgym.

School of psychology masters student Rosie Maunder, of Hobart, is studying an online treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder, developed by Professor Ken Kirkby, Dr Allison Matthews and Dr Joel Scanlan.

OCD is an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer has obsessions or compulsions they may perform several times a day. Miss Maunder said OCDdrop would put participants in simulated situations which made them anxious and caused compulsions, to try to teach them to manage the compulsion.

"It helps the client learn that the situation they're in is not going to result in the dramatic, catastrophic consequences they have in their head, and to reduce their anxiety," she said. Miss Maunder said the program would hopefully increase the accessibility and ease of treatment, with at least 50 per cent of OCD sufferers not seeking help.

She said the team had already successfully developed and trialled a similar online program targeted at people with phobias, called FearDrop.

Rural Clinical School e-health research fellow Colleen Cheek, of Burnie, said self-help computer programs had a lot of potential in rural and remote areas with few health services.

Ms Cheek is hoping to trial SPARX, a fantasy-themed computer game which uses cognitive behaviour therapy to help young people with depression.

She said the program had proven to be as effective as face-to-face therapy in New Zealand, where it was developed, and she wanted to see if it would work as well for young people in the North-West.

"We already conducted some focus groups with youths in Smithton, and they felt there was a strong need for this sort of program here, and overwhelmingly they needed access to things that couldn't identify them," Ms Cheek said.

"They wanted to get help without having to divulge their thoughts and feeling to people, and to articulate their feelings in a safe place."

Ms Cheek said the creators had given UTAS the program to use licence-free for three years, but she was looking for money to put it online and host it.

She said while the technology had a lot of potential to strengthen mental health services and support, it would never replace face-to-face therapy. "It won't suit everybody, but some people might use it and it will be all they need," she said.

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