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Reaching Out for Virtual Therapy

June 25, 1995|MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Around Christmas of 1994, Sara Reynolds had had enough of life. One evening, the 35-year-old Seattle resident, who coordinates a program to build low-income housing, logged onto the Internet and typed, "I'm quitting."

Within hours of her suicide note, Reynolds was inundated with encouraging e-mail from her depression news group. "I felt bad," she recalls. "I didn't want people to worry about me. If I ended up dead, I didn't want to have anybody feel responsible. So I thought I should wait a while."

Around the same time, Rita Macklin, an administrative assistant at Cornell University, was sitting at her desk, crying uncontrollably. She wrote a message titled "Stop the World," containing a detailed description of her misery and e-mailed it to her Internet friends. Minutes later, she received a reply: "Rita, you need to get to a doctor today. You are severely depressed and you're going to need some help."

A white-collar heroin addict maintains an e-mail relationship with a recovered addict. A suicidal Midwestern university student, with no one to turn to, types a despair-filled letter to the Samaritans--a group in Great Britain.

Via the thousands of communities that coalesce on the information highway, airing out your personal problems on-line is fast becoming the self-help route of the '90s.

Much of the action takes place around a portion of the Internet known as the Usenet, a collection of newsgroups (electronic bulletin boards where people can post and reply to messages) each dedicated to a different topic.

Groups such as alt.support.depression, alt.support.depression.suicide, alt. support eating-disord, alt.support.aa attract hundreds, if not thousands of people a day who come to read, share and help others.

Other areas that attract the psychologically ailing include chat groups, MUDs (multi-user dimensions--hybrid news group and chat areas) and person-to-person e-mail. These occur on the Internet and forums sponsored by major on-line service providers such as CompuServe's Human Sexuality Forum and the Mental Health areas on America Online's Better Health & Medical Forum. In addition, many people discuss their problems via private e-mail with people they've met somewhere on the Net.

From such relatively benign postings and analyses as appear on alt.dreams to the excruciatingly candid self-disclosures on alt.support.sexual-abuse, there's a whole lot of reaching out going on--almost always between people who have had no personal contact.

"I don't even know who they are," Reynolds says about the virtual friends who, she maintains, helped her out of the worst of her depression. "Just the fact that somebody can care about you. It's so anonymous and yet they connect on such a personal level."

Reynolds is a regular participant in some of the depression newsgroups and frequents the America Online forums and MUDs. After she left her flesh-and-blood therapist, cyberspace became her only therapeutic outlet. The advantages, she says, are many.

"You do it in the middle of the night," she explains. "You have total control over the time factor. I know 24 hours a day I can contact somebody someplace and I can at least be heard. The other side of it is, unlike my friends--because I do have friends who try and help me out--if I choose not to respond to the mail, I don't have to." And, if the problem is particularly deep or embarrassing, she says, you can always post anonymously.

Macklin, whose on-line venting serves as an adjunct to her conventional therapy, believes keyboard counseling has a lot to offer. "I feel like I got better advice over the Internet than I did from the place I went to at work," she says.

And of course, there's the one tremendous advantage getting shrunk on-line has over the real thing: "It's cheaper," says Reynolds, whose monthly America Online bill has topped $100. "But therapy is like $75 to $100 an hour. Working-class people can't afford that. I can get 25 hours on a computer for an hour with a person."

And while she says that the two modes are not comparable, "There's some really good information out there." One reason is that mental health professionals also lurk in cyberspace. Reynolds says she's encountered psychologists and counselors on-line.

"I've always been interested in emotional education," says Dr. Jean Hantman, a Philadelphia-area psychotherapist who participates in many on-line forums and answers psychology-related questions via e-mail. "My motive is that we just don't have emotional education at all. I enjoy doing it. I enjoy steering people into things that I think will be helpful for them. I think a lot of people are just lost out there emotionally, mentally and they're not getting enough support."

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