Moreover, the programme - dubbed the Sadness programme - required an average of only 111 minutes of clinician e-mail contact per person over an eight-week period, significantly less than other comparable clinician-based therapies. A paper outlining the study appeared in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.
"The results will come as a surprise to many people who believed internet-based programmes wouldn't work in treating depression", stated lead author of the study, Professor Gavin Andrews, from UNSW's School of Psychiatry. "We knew that the internet was successful at treating social phobias and other anxiety disorders but these conditions are, in many ways, low-hanging fruit. It was assumed that depression would be more difficult because of the lack of motivation usually associated with the illness", he stated. "But that simply wasn't the case."
In the study, Professor Andrews and UNSW colleague Dr. Nick Titov, based at St Vincent's Hospital, randomly assigned 45 people who met diagnostic criteria for depression to the Sadness step programme or to a waitlist control group.
Those in the treatment programme completed six on-line lessons and weekly homework assignments, received weekly e-mail contact from a clinical psychologist and contributed to a moderated on-line forum with other participants. They received an average of eight e-mail contacts each from a qualified psychologist.
After completing the programme, more than a third - 34 percent - no longer met the criteria to be diagnosed as depressed - a result similar to face-to-face therapy. A significant majority - 82 percent - who completed a post-treatment questionnaire reported being either very satisfied or mostly satisfied with the overall programme. The results replicate those from a pilot trial and are consistent with findings in internet-based trials for other mental disorders.
The findings suggested that the internet could overcome many of the barriers to seeking treatment for depression - including the stigma associated with seeing a mental health professional, the limited availability of clinicians for face-to-face treatment, and the difficulties associated with seeking treatment during working hours. There were also important implications for people in regional areas or who were otherwise socially isolated.
"The internet programme is convenient", Professor Andrews stated. "People can use it when they need to, without having to make an appointment or leave the house. Participants were logging in at 1am." While encouraging, Professor Andrews said the results needed to be followed up with larger trials. "We're not doing psychologists out of a job just yet, but if these results are replicated in larger trials, internet programmes could be utilised extensively to enhance existing mental health services."
More information is available at the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression website.