Online clinic offers helping hand
Image: fotografstockholm/iStockphoto

Key points

  • Professor Britt Klein has applied her expertise in clinical psychology to develop online mental health support programs.Anxiety Online provides open access to information, online psychological assessment and fully automated self-help or therapist-supported treatment programs via email.
  • Research found those who completed the online programs improved in terms of level of symptom severity and confidence to manage their mental health care.

At a recent overseas conference Genevieve (not her real name), a researcher and academic, experienced one of her last anxiety attacks.

“I was alone in the hotel room and I started to panic,” she recalls. Previous panic attacks had left her incapacitated with migraine and nausea.

But this time Genevieve had help. She was 10 weeks into one of the 12-week Anxiety Online programs devised by the Swinburne National eTherapy Centre (NeTC).

“The module I had been working on was about learning to sit with fear for 45 minutes. I went with that process in the hotel room and I got through it, and I can tell you that was a major achievement for me.”

The condition of extreme anxiety hit Genevieve five years ago, when she experienced a series of life changes that shattered her sense of security. “I got to the point where I didn’t know how to live,” she says. Over the next few years she spent thousands of dollars on counsellors and therapists, but none provided an escape from the dread engulfing her.

When a friend directed Genevieve towards Anxiety Online, she recognised for the first time that she had typical anxiety disorder symptoms – and that there were strategies for managing them.

Anxiety Online uses the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to guide users towards a way of understanding and managing their responses. After an initial online assessment, users can either work through one of the programs on their own for free, or pay $10 a week to be supported via email through the program by a trained therapist – as Genevieve did.

Professor Britt Klein, director of Swinburne’s NeTC, says CBT is the most evidence-based psychological treatment available for anxiety disorders. With deputy director David Austin, she developed the Anxiety Online virtual psychology clinic.

“It’s about giving people as much choice as possible regarding the way they would like to receive psychological assistance,” says Professor Klein.

Professor Klein says that online psychological treatment gives immediate access to treatment to those who would normally not be able or willing to see a therapist in person. It can also empower people to take greater control of the process.

For Genevieve, Anxiety Online has restored her life. Having completed the course a few months ago, she says she now has the tools to deal with whatever life throws at her. “For the first time I feel I know what I need to do to deal with it all.”

Tailored therapy for anxiety disorders

Figures from the Anxiety Online virtual clinic service seem to support this. Since going live in October 2009 more than 3500 people have started one of the 12-week anxiety disorder programs for treatment of generalised anxiety, panic, obsessive compulsive, post-traumatic stress or social anxiety disorder.

The results for those who have completed the programs have been positive, Associate Professor Klein says. Clinical severity levels for the various anxiety disorders have dropped, as have the total number of mental health disorders present, by the end of the programs. Programs are also offered for depression and bulimia nervosa.

Now NeTC is developing integrated multiple-disorder programs, tailored to each person’s unique set of mental health symptoms, gender and age. “These programs will be able to treat several disorders at one time and also contextualise their treatment according to their individual characteristics,” Professor Klein says.

Further changes to the Anxiety Online platform will extend therapist support from email to also include instant messaging, audio chat, video chat and virtual reality environments. The expected release date of these upgrades is July 2012.

The virtual clinic does not seek to replace face-to-face therapy, Professor Klein says, but to provide an added option.  “It’s about giving people as much choice as possible regarding the way they would like to receive psychological assistance.”

Canada adopts Swinburne program

Saskatchewan is a large, sparsely populated province in central Canada where, as in Australia, people with mental health disorders can find themselves isolated from professional help. But since early 2010, people there have had access to several Swinburne Anxiety Online programs.

Professor Heather Hadjistavropoulos, of the Online Therapy Unit for Service, Education and Research at the University of Regina, says the unit decided to license the Anxiety Online programs after reviewing research supporting the value of internet cognitive behavioural therapy.

Apart from some slight modifications to Australian colloquial sayings, the Saskatchewan group has been able to use the original program in its entirety, Professor Hadjistavropoulos says.

“The (Swinburne) group was incredibly helpful in terms of assisting us in setting up our web application and developing policies and procedures related to operating an online therapy unit.”

She hopes the Saskatchewan unit can continue its partnership with Anxiety Online. “They are leading the field and we are very fortunate to be able to partner with them and learn from their work in this area.”

Editor's Note: A story provided by Swinburne Magazine. This article is under copyright; permission must be sought from Swinburne Magazine to reproduce it.