Mental health problems? Jump on the e-couch

Online e-mental health self-help program developed by the Australian National University.

A new online health application called e-couch has been developed to provide evidence-based therapies for common mental health problems, free of charge to the community.

e-couch was developed by the e-hub of the Australian National University's Centre for Mental Health Research (CMHR), an initiative dedicated to evaluating and developing depression and anxiety-based Web sites, as well as providing useful Internet material related to common mental health issues.

"It's about providing people with a safe resource for accessing mental health material online, because many people seek to diagnose themselves or access health information online and a lot of that information is very dodgy," said Kylie Bennett, one of two project development and management leaders for e-couch. "We've all diagnosed ourselves online and often with terrible results. So one of the things that is really important for the community is being able to find quality health information online," she said.

Conceptualised by Professor Helen Christensen and Associate Professor Kathy Griffiths, e-couch is a highly interactive Web site designed to provide evidence-based information about issues such as depression, anxiety, panic, social and general anxiety disorders, as well as mental health issues resulting from divorce and bereavement.

e-couch works by breaking these issues into 'streams' that users work through to help identify, understand, cope with and possibly prevent whatever mental health problems they may be experiencing.

"We ask questions about life circumstances and symptoms, and from there we can put them into any one of the streams.

"For the moment only the depression stream is publicly available. We're probably about two or three months away from bringing the general anxiety disorder stream online," Bennett said.

Several toolkits are available for each strand. For example, the depression toolkits includes cognitive behavioural training (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy, relaxation therapy and physical activity therapy."

The rationale for e-couch stems from a high prevalence of common mental health problems in the community.

Bennett said that one in five adults are in the high risk sector for mental health problems, and more than half of those people do not seek help.

"So what we're doing is using ICT as a platform to provide information, it's about self-help, self empowerment and what people can do for themselves. We call it early intervention," she said.

e-couch follows on the success of MoodGYM, an online CBT program developed by the CMHR in 2001, and has over 250,000 registered users.

"MoodGYM is all about your thoughts and how they make you feel. The basic premise is if we can change the way we think about an event, then we can change the way we feel about it and change the way we behave," Bennett explained.

Professor Christensen said that around 12% of MoodGYM users come from the UK, where the biggest contributor is the UK National Health Service, meaning they consider MoodGYM a viable alternative to similar sites they would have to pay for.

"e-couch is a little bit like MoodGYM on steroids," Bennett said.

e-couch was designed and developed by researchers, mental health experts, software engineers, graphic artists and communication experts from the Australian National University.

(Andrew Hendry was a guest at the ANU's Centre for Mental Health Research.)

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