ANN DONAHUE

Staff Reporter

Anxious? Tense? Overwhelmed?

Feel like having a little therapy but can't leave your computer because you're involved in a killer flame war on the "Star Trek" newsgroup?

Now you can turn to www.masteringstress.com, where a computer program will lead you through a simulated therapy session for a total cost of $30.

There is a hitch: No human being is at the other end. All the advice is programmed ahead of time and triggered by what you type into the computer.

The man behind the Web site is Dr. Roger Gould, former director of the neuropsychiatric outpatient department at UCLA who runs Santa Monica-based Interactive Health Systems.

He developed the "cyber-therapy" program for people who are overstressed and short on time. "We see this as a missing link between self-help books and formal therapy," he said.

But others are expressing some concern that online therapy much as with radio call-in shows can be a risky endeavor and even compromise patient care or confidentiality.

Sherry Mehl, executive officer of the state Board of Behavioral Sciences, believes cyber-therapy threatens to give patients a false sense that their condition is improving. In the long run, she said, that can hurt their progress.

"We believe therapy should be face-to-face," said Mehl, whose agency licenses counselors and social workers in California. "Right now, the capabilities of online therapy make it pretty much as effective as an advice column or call-in radio show. It doesn't do what therapy is intended to do."

Mehl pointed out that there are now no state laws governing online therapy, and that existing laws applying to psychotherapy only cover doctors licensed in California. As a result, Mehl said, there are no guarantees that patients would have legal recourse if they tried to file a complaint against a doctor in another state who counseled them online.

Gould said his program is not meant to be a miracle cure.

"We're trying to raise a person's consciousness and get them to take appropriate action that they've thought through," he said. "It may be something as easy as becoming more active and going out and seeing their friends, or resolving conflicts by making some changes at work."

Gould said the program was developed after years of testing that involved thousands of patients at hospitals and mental health centers.

He also cites a study done by two UCLA professors of psychology, Andrew Christiansen and Marion Jacobs, that suggests online therapy can work just as well as face-to-face counseling even though computer programs or online therapists don't have the clues of body language and vocal tone to help their analysis.

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