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Saturday, 12 January, 2002, 00:05 GMT
Computer treatment for 'the blues'
Woman looking down
Depression affects one in five people in the UK
Trials of a hi-tech treatment for depression and anxiety are set to begin at a London hospital, using a computer programme to assist sufferers.

The Priory Hospital in north London is to trial the PC-based multi-media system which it says can be used alongside face-to-face therapy.

The hospital hopes it will mean more people can receive help for depression - which strikes at one in five people in the UK alone.

But the new therapy has attracted scepticism in the therapy profession over how effective a tool it would be for treating depressed people.

Think differently

The new software, called Beating the Blues, uses the principles of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) transformed into an easy-to-use computer programme.

CBT encourages sufferers to think differently about everyday situations - to help them control the links between behaviour, thoughts and mood.


One of the key aspects of therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the patient - you cannot achieve this with a computer

Professor Ivy Blackburn

The programme has been jointly developed by Ultrasis plc and Dr Judy Proudfoot of the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

Dr Neil Brener, medical director of the Priory Hospital, said CBT itself has already proved effective - particularly for patients who relapse.

Beating The Blues would compliment face-to-face sessions, he said.

"The system provides feedback and tangible data as to a patient's progress without the need for regular personal consultation."

The Beating the Blues programme starts with a 15-minute introductory video followed by eight 50-minute sessions at the computer.

Patients also have their own projects to work on in between sessions.

Person sat in front of computer screen
Prof Blackburn: "Can people engage with a computer?"

The hospital says the programme is designed to be used by complete computer novices. At the end of each session patients are given a printout indicating their progress - which also goes to their supervising doctor.

Doubts

This is designed to gauge their mood after the session and report any significant events.

In a statement, the hospital said CBT was "particularly well suited" to delivery by computer due to its highly structured nature.

But Professor Ivy Blackburn, who has been treating people with depression for over 30 years, expressed her doubts about using technology for this purpose.


The system provides feedback and tangible data as to a patient's progress without the need for regular personal consultation

Dr. Neil Brener, Priory Hospital

"One of the key aspects of therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the patient - you cannot achieve this with a computer," she said.

"Would a patient engage with a computer screen? We are taking about emotions here and I personally am not convinced it would work in cases of major depressive illness."

She said she could only see it being used as an adjunct to patients with less severe depressive symptoms.

"It could be used as a self-help book is used. Many therapists use self-help manuals more and more and I'm sure from this point of view it could reach more people," she commented.

Professor Blackburn, recently retired from her post at the Newcastle Cognitive and Behaviour Therapy Centre, acknowledged the treatment was new and that it might well be introduced more in the future.

'Sensitive nature'

"In all my experience I have not come across people who are reluctant to talk about issues and so would respond better to a computer.

"What I would say is let's see the evidence that it works," she added.

The PC sessions will be used together with face to face counselling and psychotherapy and with or without the use of anti-depressant drugs.

The potential for the trial is to reduce the cost of counselling for patients and increase the number of people who can access professional psychiatric help.

The Priory Hospital says research shows that computerised delivery of psychotherapy, including CBT, can be as effective clinically as face-to-face delivery by a human therapist and in some cases preferable.

"Where problems are of a sensitive nature, sometimes patients prefer an interactive personal computer environment to personal contact," it says in a statement.

Professor Jeffrey Gray, from the Institute of Psychiatry said the programme would prove useful to reach more people.

He told BBC News Online: "Currently it is impossible to treat all those patients suffering from anxiety and depression who would benefit greatly from CBT."

See also:

20 Dec 00 | Health
Depression
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