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If shrinks don't work, try your computer

A psychiatriac computer game called 'Fearfighter' has been endorsed by Britain's health advisory watchdog to cure people with panic attacks, mild depression, or phobias.

world Updated: Oct 04, 2007 22:56 IST

For nearly her entire life, Mary had a crippling fear of cramped spaces that meant she couldn't travel on airplanes, subways, or cars.



Seeing a psychologist didn't help. So she tried something else. The 61-year-old bookkeeper, who only gave her first name to protect her privacy, sat down in front of a computer and spilled out her problems to a kind of psychiatriac computer game called 'Fearfighter'.



Last year, 'Fearfighter' was one of two programs endorsed by Britain's health advisory watchdog for people with panic attacks, mild depression, or phobias.



People uncomfortable with getting advice from a computer can still choose to see therapists, but the option of logging on for help is now available — and will be paid for by the government-run National Health Service.



In Britain, patients registered with the NHS routinely wait up to six months to see a psychiatrist; nearly 90 per cent of people with mild depression never actually see a therapist.



The computer programmes now mean that for some patients, getting psychiatric counseling is as easy as getting a password from their general practitioner to access the programme online. "Six months for some patients might be too long a time a wait," said Dr Paul Grime, an occupational medicine expert at London's Royal Free Hospital.



Since the endorsement was made last February, many British psychiatric patients have skipped the weekly sessions at their doctor's office.



Instead, they now log on at home, or go to libraries to use computers designated to run the programs, where there is a health professional ready to help if necessary. The computers are not authorised to prescribe medicine. A qualified human is required for that.



The computerised treatment is possible because people with phobias, from fear of spiders to fear of heights, tend to get the same basic therapy.



"The idea is that the repetitive parts of the therapy are done by a computer, which can then make decisions based on these answers," said Dr Isaac Marks, a professor emeritus at King's College Institute of Psychiatry in London, and co-developer of 'Fearfighter'.



Treating short-term problems like phobias or mild depression often simply means teaching patients new ways to think or react — something a computer can be programmed to do, Marks said. In Britain, a few thousand people are estimated to have already been treated with the programmes.



Judy Leibowitz, a clinical psychologist who runs mental health programs in London, said the anonymity of computer therapy was a selling point for certain patients.



"There are lots of people who are not that keen on pouring out their heart to a therapist," she said.