Online Treatment Can Be Similarly Effective To Seeing A Therapist, With Some Caveats

Nov 22, 2017

For people with anxiety or depression, an online therapy can be similarly effective to seeing a mental health professional, according to researchers from the University of Pittsburgh. The cognitive behavioral therapy program (CBT), called "Beating the Blues," consists of eight one-hour video sessions that teach patients to overcome negative thoughts.

In the Pitt study, 704 patients with depression or anxiety from 26 UPMC hospitals were enrolled in one of three groups -- care manager guided access to "Beating the Blues," guided access to "Blues" and a moderated internet support group, or continued access to their primary care physician. 

After six months, patients randomized to one of the CBT groups reported significant improvements in their mood and anxiety symptoms, which lasted six more months. There was no measurable difference between the CBT groups that did nor did not have access to the internet support group.

Pitt Professor of Medicine Bruce Rollman, who led the study, says cognitive behavioral therapy is largely underutilized in the U.S.

"These programs in the future could be delivered in inner cities and rural areas, anywhere there aren't enough health providers to see people face-to-face," Rollman said.

During the study, 86 percent of patients randomized to CBT completed an average of 5.4 "Beating the Blues" segments. The more they completed, the better they reported feeling by the end of the intervention.

Rollman says traditional, face-to-face therapy should still be used for patients who are suicidal or struggling with substance abuse.

"So a computer program is not going to be for everybody, but it may be a way of providing effective mental health treatment," Rollman said. "Provided the patient has some level of human support."

Rollman said that level of support was, on average, two phone calls or emails a month from a medical professional encouraging use of the program.