By Jason Bittel
A soothing voice, the offer of a tissue, a gentle hand on the back—can you imagine the experience of going to a therapist without these comforts? We may be nearing the days when face-to-face human sessions are replaced by cyber-therapy, but at least it won’t look anything like ELIZA.
A new study out of the University of Zurich treated groups of patients suffering from moderate depression with two types of therapy—traditional, face-to-face counseling and a modified form of cognitive behavioral therapy administered through written tasks on the Internet. Patients underwent a series of eight sessions and were then evaluated for improvement. And guess what—the Internet therapy sessions won.
I mean, technically, patients from both groups “won”—the degree of depression fell significantly in both groups. However, according to the university’s website, “At the end of the treatment, no more depression could be diagnosed in 53 percent of the patients who underwent online therapy—compared to 50 percent for face-to-face therapy.” Perhaps what’s more interesting though is what happened after the sessions. Three months later, depression continued to decline in individuals of both groups, but 15 percent more of the cyber-therapy group saw improvement.
It’s easy to dismiss such findings outright because they show yet another example of humans distancing themselves from traditionally face-to-face activities. But there might actually be some benefits to consider here.
When participants were given satisfaction surveys after the treatment, 96 percent of the online group rated contact with their therapist as “personal,” compared with 91 percent of the face-to-face group. That at least means remote psychoanalysis isn’t necessarily robotic psychoanalysis. Furthermore, patients from the online group said they continued to reread correspondence with their therapist after the sessions were over. The researchers don’t say whether it’s likely this had an effect on the online group’s superior post-session results, but having records of your sessions that could be pulled up at any time seems like a considerable benefit. In contrast, face-to-face patients leave their sessions with only a memory of what was discussed.
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