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Help online

Original link, including video: http://news.anu.edu.au/2012/08/14/help-online/ 

Australia is facing a mental health crisis. Around one in five Australians suffer some form of mental disorder each year and mental disorders now account for 13 per cent of the total disease burden in Australia. Despite this, many people are still not getting the treatment they need. Dr Lou Farrer from the Centre for Mental Health Research says that this is a problem she’s determined to tackle.

“I always wanted to be a medical doctor,” Farrer says. “But I discovered from a young age that there was no way I could cut people open or work with disease. Instead, I became really fascinated by psychology. I’m interested in not only how people get ill psychologically, but also how some people stay well psychologically despite facing risk factors. It’s fascinating stuff.”

Farrer has just completed her research PhD in clinical psychology, which she undertook while completing training to become a psychologist. Farrer’s PhD studies involved analysing the effectiveness of online mental health treatment programs. She says that e-health approaches can play an important role in reaching those who are suffering from mental disorders.

“As many as 60 per cent of people with mental health problems don’t seek professional help. That can be for a number of reasons; it can be the cost of treatment, it can be difficulty accessing it, or the stigma attached to it. Our team comes from the perspective that we want to get mental health help to as many people as we can. The Internet is a way to overcome those barriers. It’s convenient and free and research shows that it works.”

Farrer trialled the use of two online depression treatment tools developed at ANU – BluePages andMoodGYM – incorporated with the established services provided by Lifeline Australia.

“We worked with Lifeline centres in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. The Lifeline counsellors identified callers who seemed to be experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety. We then split these callers up into groups. Some were asked to complete MoodGYM and BluePages on their own; others were given these programs as well as weekly phone calls to see how they were progressing. Another group received weekly phone calls without using the online programs and the final group received the standard Lifeline service of on-the-spot telephone counselling. What we found was that the groups who had used MoodGYM and BluePages had a significant, immediate drop in symptoms of depression. What is really exciting is that the symptoms of people who used the online programs stayed reduced for at least six months after the intervention was finished. So, the online programs not only had an effect, but the effects lasted.”

BluePages and MoodGYM also worked on issues other than depression, says Farrer.

“In addition to reducing depression symptoms, the programs were effective in reducing hazardous alcohol use, increasing people’s knowledge of depression and increasing quality of life. It was really exciting to see that these programs had an impact well beyond treating people’s depressive symptoms.”

Farrer is now hoping to use her clinical and research skills to improve the development and delivery of online programs for mental health problems.

“Now that I have finished my PhD, I’m working on a project that will involve young people in the development of online programs, which will hopefully make the programs more effective and engaging. I’m also working on evaluating other online programs developed at ANU, including a community-based online bulletin board for depression. Working in e-health, I’m continually trying to find ways to apply my clinical skills in the research we are doing. It’s a nice marriage for me,” she says.


About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.


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