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Mental Therapy From Web 'Experts' Could Drive a Person Mad

July 09, 1998|ERIKA MILVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With psychotherapy rates up to a hundred bucks and more for that 50-minute hour, many in need of bolstering their mental health have pursued other avenues to procure counsel. As ever, we need look no further than our own PC to find an expanse of helping hands.

And as ever, the counseling options that abound on the Web are mind-boggling. Online advisors come in all shapes and sizes, some more professional than others.

Web advisors fall into one of two categories: those that supply instantaneous solutions and those who ponder the queries and reply at their leisure. The first is more often instant oracles than deep thinkers. These include: Interactive Magic 8-Ball, Joe's Magic 9-Ball, Magic Infinity Ball, the Mystic 9-Ball and the World Wide Web Ouija.

When I asked one of these oracles, called "Kurt Cobain's Magic Talking 8-Ball" (http: //www.xworld.com/cobain/askcobain.html), whether I should color my hair, I was told (by a Cobain-ish sounding audio clip), "Yes, no, maybe, kinda, sorta." It was sure swell to hear from old Kurt again, but his advice wasn't particularly helpful.

I was most satisfied with the counsel received from Psychic Chicken (http://www.cjnetworks.com/admark/chicken.html), who replied by e-mail: "I don't recommend coloring yer hair because it tends to break the crayons and don't ya just hate little stubby crayons?" Mr. Chicken, however, is currently on sabbatical. Check back with him next month.

Of course, if you're looking for advice from someone you can trust, you can always ask Dr. Katz, TV's most animated psychotherapist. At the Comedy Central site (http://www.comcentral.com/katz/katz2.shtml), the cartoon analyst dispenses wisdom via e-therapy, using a multiple-choice style auto-diagnosis form. When Dr. Katz inquired as to how I felt, I chose: "How would you like me to feel?" His response: "How long have you felt this way?"

Some Web advice from the good doctor: "I find sometimes the best way to deal with problems is not to dwell on them and release them, let them go. Say out loud 10 times, 'I don't have a problem, I don't have a problem,' and eventually the problem will disappear." You could do worse.

Like any good therapist worth her salt, Eliza answers every question with a question. At http://www-ai.ijs.si/eliza/eliza.html, you can actually have a conversation with Eliza. But when she struck me as vaguely noninteractive, and a tad too immediate, I typed: "I have the sneaking suspicion you are a computer." To which she responded, "Why do you mention computers?" I wrote, "You're getting on my nerves!" She answered, "Why do you say your nerves?" At that point our session was over.

At Ask the Psychic Pop-Tarts (http://www.poptarts.com/Psychic/Psychic.asp) you can load some tasty tarts into the toaster and have them pop back up with a fruity reply. "Should I color my hair?" I inquired. "I think we all know the answer to that!" replied the tarts.

Then there's Mr. Bad Advice (http://www.echonyc.com/ ~spingo/Mr.BA/), who told me that he is qualified to dispense advice because he was born and raised in Brooklyn. Which goes to show there are just as many crackpot therapists on the Web as there are, well, in real life. As the "Ask Beepo" Web site notes: "Need advice, he's got it. Not great advice, but what do you expect for free?" (http://www.dca.net/ ~rwaters/askbeepo.html).

Erika Milvy is an arts and entertainment writer based in San Fransciso. She can be reached at erika@well.com

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