Research project: life beyond psychosis

Research project: life beyond psychosis

01 Oct 2009

One in five Australians will develop a mental illness at some point in their lives and La Trobe University is trialling a world-first research project to help sufferers get on with life.  

tug of warLa Trobe’s School of Psychological Science, through the Lifengage project, are trialling two therapies to help sufferers of psychotic illnesses, such as schizophrenia, live with symptoms of psychosis, which have not responded to medication.

Symptoms such as hearing voices or feeling paranoid often persist and have huge financial and emotional costs for the sufferer.

It is estimated that three people in a hundred Australians will develop psychosis in their lives, and the University’s trial is taking a step away from traditional research methods and looking at how people can live with symptoms, instead of getting rid of them.

‘That is the interesting thing about the trial: that neither therapy is focused on making the symptoms go away, but rather, they represent different pathways for assisting the participants to get on with their life,’ says Dr Farhall, the principal investigator for Lifengage.

The two therapies being trialled are Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Befriending.

ACT helps sufferers by engaging with their symptoms in a different way from their usual therapy.  Instead of talking about symptoms that are difficult to change, clients learn how to leave them aside and get on with things they value.

One exercise is called ‘tug-o-war with a monster’, where the therapist is the ‘monster’ and the client acts out their mental struggle with their symptoms using a beach towel.  The client is then able to notice how they can’t do anything else at the same time, and then is invited by the therapist to ‘let go’ of the struggle.

Befriending, on the other hand, is about the client building a relationship, or friendship, with the therapist, where they can focus on the good things in a client’s life such as hobbies or interests, rather than focusing on the negatives, such as their symptoms, that often dominate their lives.  

With many clients often having limited social contact, the therapy, it gives them an opportunity to become more familiar and confident in talking to someone and getting on with their lives.

Dr John Farhall, the principal investigator for Lifengage, hopes both the participants’ well-being and science will benefit from the project.

‘On the one hand we are trying to improve the quality of the life for the participants, and on the other  we are trying to understand which of these two under-researched therapies will provide better results.’

The three year trial is being funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), from 2008 to 2010, however the researchers expect to extend the trial into 2011 and welcome any new sponsorship.

The research team hopes to recruit approximately 100 participants, who have been diagnosed with a psychotic illness and are still experiencing distressing symptoms or problems, despite medication.

So far around 30 people have agreed to be part of the trial and are in various stages of assessment, therapy, or follow up sessions.

Therapy is being offered at La Trobe University (Bundoora) and in conjunction with several public mental health services in Melbourne, including: St Vincent’s Health (Inner Urban East – Hawthorn, East Melbourne), Southern Health (Dandenong and Middle South), Melbourne Health (North Western Mental Health), and Mercy Mental Health (South West).

John Farhall
Principal Investigator
Phone: 03 9479 1626

Emma White
Phone: 03 9479 5045


Mikhaela Delahunty

03 9479 5353




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