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Journal of Medical Internet Research


Background: Millions of people worldwide are underserved by the mental health care system. Indeed, most mental health problems go untreated, often because of resource constraints (eg, limited provider availability and cost) or lack of interest or faith in professional help. Furthermore, subclinical symptoms and chronic stress in the absence of a mental illness diagnosis often go unaddressed, despite their substantial health impact. Innovative and scalable treatment delivery methods are needed to supplement traditional therapies to fill these gaps in the mental health care system.

Objective: This study aims to investigate whether a self-guided web-based course can teach pairs of nonprofessional peers to deliver psychological support to each other.

Methods: In this experimental study, a community sample of 30 dyads (60 participants, mostly friends), many of whom presented with mild to moderate psychological distress, were recruited to complete a web-based counseling skills course. Dyads were randomized to either immediate or delayed access to training. Before and after training, dyads were recorded taking turns discussing stressors. Participants’ skills in the helper role were assessed before and after taking the course: the first author and a team of trained research assistants coded recordings for the presence of specific counseling behaviors. When in the client role, participants rated the session on helpfulness in resolving their stressors and supportiveness of their peers. We hypothesized that participants would increase the use of skills taught by the course and decrease the use of skills discouraged by the course, would increase their overall adherence to the guidelines taught in the course, and would perceive posttraining counseling sessions as more helpful and their peers as more supportive.

Results: The course had large effects on most helper-role speech behaviors: helpers decreased total speaking time, used more restatements, made fewer efforts to influence the speaker, and decreased self-focused and off-topic utterances (ds=0.8-1.6). When rating the portion of the session in which they served as clients, participants indicated that they made more progress in addressing their stressors during posttraining counseling sessions compared with pretraining sessions (d=1.1), but they did not report substantive changes in feelings of closeness and supportiveness of their peers (d=0.3).

Conclusions: The results provide proof of concept that nonprofessionals can learn basic counseling skills from a scalable web-based course. The course serves as a promising model for the development of web-based counseling skills training, which could provide accessible mental health support to some of those underserved by traditional psychotherapy.







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