Computers Get a Boost as Psychotherapists

Article excerpt

Computers get a boost as psychotherapists

Psychotherapy may be going from the couch to the computer. In a pilot study reported in the January AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY, investigators found that a computer programmed to use specific psychological techniques is as effective in relieving mild to moderate depression as a human therapist using the same approach.

The results do not suggest flesh-and-blood therapists are irrelevant in treating depression, but "there's definitely a place for computers in the mental health field," says study director Paulette M. Selmi, a psychologist with a private practice in Mesa, Ariz.

Selmi devised a computer treatment program that operates on the tenets of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which stresses practical exercises to change thoughts and behaviors contributing to depression. Numerous studies have documented the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral treatment when administered by a trained therapist. The computer program did not interpret what people divulged about their lives or carry on a dialogue with them, Selmi notes. It simply incorporated their answers to open-ended and multiple-choice questions into recommendtions for overcoming self-defeating attitudes and actions.

Selmi and her colleagues randomly assigned each of 36 volunteers, all reporting symptoms of mild or moderate depression, to one of the following: computer treatment, sessions with a therapist, or a waiting-list control group. The first two groups attended six weekly therapy sessions. For those undergoing computer treatment, an experimenter helped start and stop each session and answered any questions that arose, most of which concerned computer procedures.

Two months after the therapy sessions ended, eight people in the computer group and nine people in the therapist group reported a significant mood improvement, compared with one person on the waiting list. …