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Computer With a Couch : Encino Psychologist Counsels on Screen

August 07, 1985|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

There are those days--the Dow is up a fraction, but your feelings are at a low for the year.

Until recently, as owners of personal computers can attest, you always had information about how to deal with the market. But when the parking spaces were all on the other side of the street, when life had been a week of Mondays, it did no good to turn to the keyboard.

That was until a few months ago. Now, courtesy of a clinical psychologist in Encino, subscribers to a data-base service may have their personal problems dealt with. Appearing in green letters on a computer screen, in reply to a member's plaintive plea, is verbal therapy as to--perhaps--why that vending machine didn't respond when you said thank you.

The Dear Abby of the byte brigade.

"For some time I had been feeling that I had more to say than I could get across to a day's worth of patients in the office," said John M. Schuster, a graduate of the California School of Professional Psychology.

It happened that at the beginning of the year, the 40-year-old Schuster became a subscriber for business purposes to the Source, an international information network for owners of personal computers.

"We have more than 62,000 subscribers around the world. They can get on their screens wire-service news stories, sports results, weather reports, stock quotes and can communicate directly with other members," spokesperson Jo Anne Montgomery said by phone from McLean, Va., on behalf of the service, offered by Source Telecomputing Corp.

Get What You Pay For

(For a one-time hookup fee of $50, a subscriber pays 36 cents a minute for 300 baud from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Baud is the speed at which the information is transmitted. During non-prime hours and on weekends the charge drops to 14 cents a minute, according to Montgomery.)

As has been observed, however, there is more to life than news, weather and sports. Such as possible problems with a marriage, the family, drugs--all the tapestries of 1985.

The only thing lacking, as always in this electronic age, was the personal touch. As of the spring, however, the Brave New World has heart.

"I wrote to the Source and told them I would be in their area on business in April," Schuster recalled. "I told them my profession, and suggested they might want having a psychologist on line who could talk via computer to other members."

And not only talk while on line, but later answer messages sent while he isn't signed on.

The clinical psychologist was invited to stop by while in town. The outcome is that a personalized computer counseling service now is available.

"Welcome, you are connected to The Source," said the green lettering on the computer screen in amid the miniature model of a sailing ship and a roll-top desk in the den of a rambling home in Encino.

The psychologist had just signed on with his private password and was on line. Anyone else among the other 62,000 users could confer with him immediately and directly.

In front of Schuster was an Apple II keyboard and computer connected via telephone lines, plus two disk drives and two monitors. "I have two monitors in the event one malfunctions," he explained. "It has happened in the past that I was electronically talking with someone, and something went on the fritz."

Awaiting him was a message someone had left. He typed that person's identification and added: "Hi! We are here now."

A beep sounded, signaling that the other party was ready to confer.

"So I see," came the reply. "The computer is still working."

The other party, on the East Coast, had already been advised that a visitor was observing the exchanges on the screen. "Do you have a problem today?" the clinical psychologist asked his fellow subscriber via the keyboard.

"I had a 3-year-old who wouldn't want to leave Mom for any reason, such as to be with baby-sitters, or at nursery school," was the problem.

Schuster's fingers began moving on the Apple: "I would suggest that you take the child to school and stay with the child for a couple days. Then day by day, spend a little bit less time at the school . . . kind of ease out of it gradually."

Columns on File

If a subscriber doesn't have anything bothersome at the moment, he or she may want to hit Schuster's ID number (BCR711) and peruse the weekly column, Focus on Psychology, six of which are on file at any given time.

They have such titles as "Gamblers' Brain Chemistry," "Saying Goodbys," "New Help for Children" and "The Mail Bag" (anonymous or first-name-only samples of problems and advice already dealt with).

Schuster, who has 10 years of private practice in his field, said he is paid for the columns, but there is no extra charge to a subscriber for the new personalized service.

Subscribers to the data-base outfit have been apprised in its new-events listings of the personal service available, and the psychologist sometimes mentions it in his columns.

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