Therapy online just as good as IRL

Mental ill-health is a huge problem in Sweden – and the world. It afflicts individuals directly, but also societies, in the form of increased costs. New solutions are needed – and some of the answers can be found on the web.

Photo credit David EinarIt’s the late 1990s. Two students knock on the office door of their supervisor, Gerhard Andersson. They want to investigate whether the internet can be used to treat headache. Gerhard Andersson thinks ‘interesting’, and gives the go-ahead, without realising how big this eventually will be.

The study is one of the first to look into web-based treatment. The participants, who suffer from headache, learn about relaxation, stress management and similar methods by way of email. The results are good.

With online therapy, the patients get instructions over the internet, and do their exercises at a time and place that suits them. There’s no need to sneak away from work for a daytime appointment. The exercises can be done at home on the sofa. And the patients can access the information as many times as they wish, so anything they miss is easily revisited. But there is also a real-life therapist who gives feedback.

Gerhard Andersson, professor, IBL, Linköpings universitet, 141106Gerhard Andersson Photo credit Vibeke MathiesenA new research field is born, and Gerhard Andersson promptly follows up the headache study with one on tinnitus. Before long he is research director for a team of talented students. In 2004 he becomes professor of clinical psychology at Linköping University, where he continues to explore opportunities for online treatment of everything from depression to arachnophobia.

There are advances in both the treatment form – cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT – and the technology, especially with the arrival of the smart phone. Numerous studies show that online CBT delivers just as good results as meeting a psychologist in person. Gerhard Andersson becomes a pioneer in the field, and his research team is amongst the foremost in the world.

The research in Linköping is unusually student driven. Because the teaching in the psychology programme is problem-based, the students are accustomed to working in groups, and to taking plenty of responsibility. This makes it possible to take on projects that have little funding, and the students get a good deal of influence.

The LiU researchers continue to break new ground, with research projects in new fields such as loneliness, perfectionism and stress recovery. And the internet allows new forms of treatment to be developed and tested more quickly and efficiently.

Mental ill-health is a major social problem that we have not yet come to grips with. In many cases, online therapy is a possible way forward, especially when dealing with stress or a breakdown. Today, several Swedish counties and regions offer online CBT, and more are on the way. There’s a shortage of trained CBT therapists, and with internet-delivered treatment, more people can get help more quickly. The result: benefits for both individuals and society.

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