Sarah Berry July 31, 2012
Free and convenient ... online initiative makes psychological support more accessible.
The evils of the internet tend to get good coverage. There are, of course, plenty of wonders as well.
A new free online initiative by the Black Dog Institute is one of these.
Launched last Monday, myCompass is a free online self-help service that aims to promote mental health and wellbeing for all Australians.
It is self-styled as "a guide to good mental health – it points you in the right direction" and is designed to help people manage mild to moderate stress, anxiety and depression.
It allows you to track your moods around the clock and view information and tips. It also provides personalised educational modules, quick tips, motivational messages and fact sheets.
The hope is that, through such programs, more people will seek help. This is significant given that around 3 million Australians experience some form of mental illness each year with the majority involving anxiety and depression. These numbers are continuing to grow, according to the Black Dog Institute, yet in 2007 only around 35 per cent of people with a mental health problem sought help.
"Research clearly shows that early psychological intervention can reverse mild to moderate symptoms of depression and anxiety,' says myCompass developer Associate Professor, Judy Proudfoot. "myCompass has been designed to support people that may not seek help because of lack of time, lack of access to face-to-face services or a fear of stigma."
Lucinda Napper was one of those who felt the sting of stigma that sometimes goes with depression. As a 19-year-old, she found herself struggling to cope, but the silence around mental illness left her feeling even worse. "I didn't know what was wrong with me," she says. "There was no external reference point. When it happened, even a few years ago, it wasn't talked about that much. I thought I was a bit crap - you feel so lonely and confused. I just thought I wasn't coping with the pressures of uni. I didn't know something was wrong with me that could be fixed."
It took over two years for Napper to seek help. By that time she needed anti-depressants and cognitive behaviour therapy for 12 months. "[But] I was amazed at how quickly, with the right kind of support, I was able to return to my old sparkly self," she says.
While she is "pretty healthy" these days, she still admits to having "my down days with anxiety and stress." Having recently trialled myCompass over a couple of months, she says it's not enough on its own for people with severe depression or stress, but believes it would be helpful for those who haven't spiralled.
"It gets you to put your feelings down and helps you to understand them - the triggers for certain kinds of anxiety," she explains. "Stress and anxiety don't go away in the modern world, but they can be managed and are much easier to manage when you have the tools to assist you."
Of the interactive service, she says, "I got sent a reminder every day - you can pick the same time or vary it. And then you click the link to your personal portal ... [and] rate how you're feeling out of ten.
If you're a one, two or three; that's a red flag and it says you really should speak to someone. It gives you options - asks what you are doing every day and generates a graph of the various activities over the days [so you can see what's negatively or positively affecting you]."
Certainly, early trials of myCompass have seen positive results. In a recent pilot study, after using the program people reported significantly lower levels of stress, anxiety, depression, overall psychological distress and improvements in their day-to-day functioning, the authors said.
"I don't want to overstate it - it's not magic - but, it is helpful," Napper says. "It helps you to take control of your own anxiety and stresses in a way that makes your life flow easier."