Welcome to the future of reductionist psychiatry. You can now be diagnosed, labeled and treated without a doctor ever having to even look you in the eye or hear the stories that make you tick. Just click the boxes for your symptoms, fill out the questionnaire and the complexities of the human psyche can be unraveled as quickly as e-filing your taxes in the last hour of tax day. Never mind the subtle differences that define us or the experiences that got us here.
This is not some luddite rant about the technology takeover, though to some extent there is a worthwhile wariness in that discussion. I’m talking about the power of the DSM, which was never meant to be a stand-alone collection of boxes to check off in diagnosing, now essentially uploaded and online to be used in just that fashion.
From Australia’s The Age:
MENTALLY ill Australians are increasingly being diagnosed and treated online in virtual psychiatric clinics, without ever seeing a doctor.
Patients suffering from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are being assessed by computer and given ”e-prescriptions” for online counselling courses instead of medication or treatment sessions with a psychologist or psychiatrist…
With e-therapy, patients are clinically diagnosed after completing psychiatric reviews by answering online questions
“Assessed by computer”? It makes you wonder what we need all these psychiatrists for? Apparently all we really need are the DSM committee and a handful of tech guys to work out the interface and we’ll be well on our way to solving those pesky problems that keep cropping up and reminding us how hopelessly human we all are.
One positive point is that it presents a shift from medicine and toward some sort of counseling but I see that aspect of it as short lived. It seems likely to follow the trend of “real life” psychiatry and revert to drug based care, printing out its e-prescriptions for the latest in pharmaceuticals. Also, it makes you wonder — if these kinds of treatments are so effective, why do we need a computer to veer away from drugs? I can see computer based communication and the easy transfer of information as useful but only as a supplement to truly involved care from a living, breathing human – not a replacement. I question the quality of online counseling when compared to real counseling. Of course it’s limited to relatively minor difficulties like depression, anxiety and PTSD. They wouldn’t dare try to treat the as yet uncharted depths of serious mental illness — would they?
In Melbourne, David Austin, the co-director of the National eTherapy Centre’s Anxiety Online program, which is run from Swinburne University of Technology, said the service did not attempt to treat people with more serious conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder but there was scope for that in the future.
“Within five to 20 years we will have a proven e-therapy for most of the psychological conditions. Once you do that, you have 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week low-cost access for everyone,” said Professor Austin.
Everyone. Oh good. At least they’re planning ahead. This is where the drugs are likely to come into play as most things perceived as serious mental illness are treated with drugs as a chemical problem in the brain not simply a coping, life handling or perception problem.
Patients log on anonymously to complete modules on cognitive behavioural therapy and breathing and relaxation techniques through videos, podcasts, online forums and interactive questionnaires.
Next month, courses will begin for people with eating disorders and gambling addiction.
I’m convinced computers can be of some benefit in a therapeutic setting whether it’s to impart information, the support found in many forums or supplemental counseling. The biggest problem, though isn’t in the counseling aspect of it but in the assessing. While the move to computer based diagnosis promises to extend mental health care to more people, we need to question the level of care and its potential to do more harm than good. We’re talking about diagnosing people online that we’ve never met. The internet has proven to be an unreliable way to get to know people. Something gets lost in translation between the keyboard at one end and the screen at the other. That’s why some people hide behind them, filtering and crafting their online persona and others with the best and most honest intentions just don’t come across as themselves. Many would argue that the computer isn’t even a good way to determine whether someone is dateable but somehow we think we can ascertain someone’s mental and emotional state and diagnose them which will have a huge and far reaching impact on the course of their lives.
We are all complex individuals to varying degrees. One can no more experience another’s state of mind through a computer’s screen than the fullness of a symphony through its crackling plastic speakers. I can’t imagine letting the care of someone’s mental well being hinge on that poor a translation.