Online Therapy: Cyberspace Meets Outer Space

In my first post, I concluded that internet addiction is likely to be a manifestation of disorders, like depression or anxiety, and should not be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While many individuals do believe it is worthy of its own diagnosis, perhaps they would be convinced otherwise if the internet could actually help correct the behavior that they believe is solely attributable to its use. Could online therapy be sufficient to diminish the symptoms of a mental affliction? The prospect seems promising but is not yet prominent regarding online counseling for the average citizen. Instead, current attention falls on a population in a high-risk situation, without the ability to see a live therapist--astronauts. An Associated Press news article published this past week, "Depressed Astronauts Might Get Computerized Solace," reveals NASA's intent to launch a $1.74 million project called the Virtual Space Station designed by Dartmouth psychologist Dr. Mark Hegel, seen to the right. This undertaking, sponsored by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, will help astronauts identify the reasons for their depression and combat the symptoms using a method called the "problem-solving treatment."

This week I probed the blogosphere for reactions to NASA's plan. First, I commented on "Therapy in Space" by Dr. Greg Mulhauser because of his credibility with a Ph.D. and establishment with his own consulting firm. Mulhauser thinks the Virtual Space Station will be important in the advancement of internet therapy as a whole because of NASA's name and the supplied funding. I also commented on "The Madness of Offering Depressed Astronauts a Computerized Shrink," by a skeptical creative media director, Chris Matyszczyk. I have posted my input on the two respective blogs, but have also included it below for convenience.

"Therapy in Space"
I appreciate your information and insight regarding internet therapy, especially since I see its potential to become more wide-spread with this funding and added attention. Even though you say it has been in existence for a while, it is not yet in the foreground; I believe it would be beneficial particularly for individuals who do not have the means to afford such mental help. Also, because there is a societal stigma attached to participating in therapy sessions, individuals could opt to handle these personal matters in a more inconspicuous fashion.

You quote Dr. Jay Buckley saying, "The Virtual Space Station is based on proven treatment programs and is a very helpful way to work on problems in general," but how do you think internet-based therapy compares with face-to-face therapy? I understand that for astronauts this is the only option, but projecting into the future for the general public, do you think internet therapy would be a sufficient alternative? I believe it would depend on the nature of the disorder, but it seems that milder diagnoses could highly benefit from something like this that would promote reflection and self-evaluation.

I think you offer a valid point regarding asynchronous therapy via email. While it does have the time-delay, it seems like a healthy outlet for astronauts to discuss their mental concerns to an unbiased party. The emails could act as a diary for these space-explorers to anonymously record thoughts and feelings, which alone seems therapeutic. In their situation, it may be difficult to share issues with other crew members based on a fear of judgment or a perception of weakness, but in an email they would feel empowered to know that a psychologist is listening and will provide feedback. A problem might arise if an astronaut becomes frustrated and expects a quick-fix. The mental unrest that lies within an individual must also be coped with by that person alone; a psychologist just acts as a catalyst in this process.

"The Madness of Offering Depressed Astronauts a Computerized Shrink"
I read the recent article about the Virtual Space Station that NASA is creating to help depressed astronauts, and would like to thank you for your opinion on the matter. To begin, you say that "many of these astronauts were already a bit weird before they floated off into space," which might be true, but I believe astronauts go through extremely strict physical and mental tests to assess their potential ability to remain sane while in an enclosed environment. Even if you think astronauts were previously "crazy" before launching into space, its still seems important for them to have access to a program that will foster introspection and mental self-evaluation. I understand the process of therapy differently than you do; I do not think that astronauts input questions or feelings and have an automated-type response, but instead, the pre-recorded psychologist offers different mind exercises that the individual can perform, like a meditation. It seems useless for the astronaut to type a message because therapists do not give answers, however they do help one come to terms with stresses using various methods of self-reflection.

You express doubt in the non-human qualities of the computer, and suggest that a better alternative would be to have a psychologist there in person, despite the potential problems with regard to number of people on the mission. First of all, therapists are not superhuman and are subject to depression and other mental disorders just like everyone else. Secondly, if there were a psychologist on the spacecraft, they would become part of the crew; part of the reason for depression is that the astronaut is surrounded by the same people and are disconnected from the outside world. A therapist online would help someone feel a connection to home. Also, you ask how anyone could feel comfortable revealing a strange dream of theirs to a "mere computer," but according to the online disinhibition effect, people are much more likely to divulge personal information on a computer as opposed to in real life because of anonymity. With all of that said, I believe that online therapy is far from perfect, but it seems like the best alternative for these individuals, given their location.

1 comment:

Michael Ecker said...

The mental state of our astronauts is a serious concern given the importance of their work, and the amount of American tax dollars that put that person into space. I was not even aware that astronauts had a history of being depressed in space, though it does make sense considering the long missions, and limited human contact. Some sort of communication needs to be opened up to keep from inflicting lasting damage on their psyche. In my opinion, some sort of therapy is necessary for these astronauts, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t already been addressed. The idea of having pre-programmed answers in a computer program seems unsympathetic, while bringing a psychologist along may be too much action. The idea of having email correspondance dedicated to the sake of mental health seems to be the most viable action to take. While it may be more expensive, it also could benefit the astronauts considerably if they could speak on the phone to a therapist, or video chat. Another possible solution is to train the astronauts in therapeutic techniques so that they can be each other’s psychologists to some degree. This strategy is probably already being implemented to some degree, but it would be important to emphasize the psychological aspect to greater effect. The idea of virtual therapy, if effective, can easily be transmitted to the rest of the virtual world. It could be a very important asset to those who can’t afford the high rates of in-person therapy, but no matter how effective it can be, I think that a major part of the importance of therapy comes from the doctor –patient relationship. How effective do you think the form of virtual therapy created by Dr. Hegel will be? Do you see this technology moving on to be available to the masses in some form? Either way, I enjoyed your post and found your thoughts posed to either blog to be very interesting. As someone who knows very little about psychology, I’ve learned quite a bit just from reading your blog.

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