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Wednesday, May 27, 1998 Published at 16:44 GMT 17:44 UK

Health: Latest News

Psychiatric patients can 'treat themselves'

Obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers can find help over the telephone

New technology could help people who suffer from a mental disorder which compels them to undertake bizarre and upsetting behaviour to lead a normal life.

The BT (Behaviour Therapy) STEPS computer system allows people who suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) to monitor their own condition and to treat themselves.

OCD patients suffer from repeated negative thoughts or images which plague their lives.

Neutralise obsessions

In an attempt to ward off or neutralise these obsessions, sufferers engage in ritualised behaviour, or compulsions, such as excessive hand washing or repeated checking of light switches.

The condition, which is thought to be linked to low levels of a chemical in the brain, is believed to affect 2-3% of the population.

Treatment is either by drugs or behaviour therapy, a technique which exposes OCD sufferers to stressful situations, and encourages them not to resort to ritualised behaviour in order to cope.

The BT STEPS system enables OCD sufferers to call up a computer which allows them effectively to interview themselves.

Using the interactive voice response system, sufferers can assess how bad their condition is, and work out an individually tailored action plan of therapy after learning about the techniques used to combat the disorder.

In a study reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry, four out five people who tested BT STEPS were able to assess themselves effectively by using the system from their own homes.

Subjects were able to pinpoint, record and rate their obsessions and ritual behaviour.

Comprehensive picture

After 3-4 weeks, the subjects had built up a comprehensive picture of their OCD, their level of depression and the impact the condition had on their work and social lives.

They had identified the situations and objects that triggered their symptoms and rated the discomfort they felt when confronted with each trigger.

Nearly half the people who took part in the study were eventually able to treat themselves so successfully that they significantly reduced their ritualised behaviour - a figure which stands comparision with the number who can be successfully treated by drugs.

No stigma

Report co-author Professor Isaac Marks, of the Institute of Psychiatry, said: "BT STEPS should be very useful in the long run.

"It means people can get treatment at home without having to make an appointment to see a doctor and without the stigma of having to attend a pyschiatric hospital. It is also very helpful to have advice immediately on tap."

Professor Marks stressed that BT STEPS would only be available to those people deemed suitable after a brief interview with a clinician.

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22 May 98 | Medical notes
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