John Schuster Serves as the Computer Shrink to Terminally Tortured Souls

updated 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

It had to happen. The psychologist's couch has been replaced by a computer. And where else but in California? The blending of counseling and computer chips got its start four years ago when John Schuster, a clinical psychologist in Encino, was bitten by the computer bug. He became a subscriber to the Source, an electronic data base offering computer operators a range of services including the Washington Post, the national weather report and assorted electronic games. The Source also allows its 60,000 subscribers—each of whom has an ID number—to post electronic mail ("Your message arrives in seconds") and to "chat."

"Chatting," Schuster explains, is "talking to somebody, but you type your conversation. It's strictly one-to-one; nobody else can see it." People on terminals habitually call up strangers. "You've no idea who or where they are. It's fascinating," he says.

As a psychologist Schuster soon found that chatting had a way of turning serious. "At first people would talk about general things—lunch, the weather, what they were doing that day. But when I told them what I did, the conversation would shift to 'Well, I've got this husband, or I've got this kid, or my mother's been giving me a bad time lately. What do you think?' " Analyzing the situation, Schuster says, "it dawned on me that maybe I could use this system to help people." He sent off a letter to Jay Keller, president of the Washington-based Source, proposing a computer counseling service. Keller was skeptical. "He said," recalls Schuster, "we have Dow Jones, the Associated Press, what's this psychology business? That's for California." Schuster finally prevailed on the Source to try a column.

His "Focus on Psychology" proved popular, and "people began writing me electronic mail letters about their problems," he says. That led to a Source letters column called the "Mailbag." Subscribers pay by the minute of reading time, and the Source in turn pays Schuster a percentage of the system's rate, which varies from a low of $8.40 up to $27.60 an hour.

Soon, however, Schuster realized that chatting, which had first caught his attention, was the most direct way to help. "I wrote the Source again and suggested that we establish times when people know I'm on-line and will chat with them about whatever problem it is they want to talk about." The Source agreed. Schuster, whose call name is BCR711, is now on-line for chats 16 hours a week, usually during the early evening and on weekends. "Sessions" average 20 minutes, for which the Source charges no more than $9.20. (Private clients pay Schuster up to $85 an hour at his Encino office.) "The problems I hear most, " he says, "are a perfect mirror image of what happens in my private practice—personal relationships, family and work problems." Schuster already has a number of correspondents from Europe. By contrast, one client lived in nearby Venice, Calif. "We kept writing back and forth until we realized it would be cheaper to use the phone."

Schuster emphasizes that computer therapy is not for everyone. "I recommend to very troubled people that they get some face-to-face help," he says. There was, for instance, the case of "a man who told me he was ready to do himself in," says Schuster, who worked at an L.A. suicide prevention center for four years. "You can't work effectively with someone who is suicidal over a computer. I asked him to phone me, and we talked a long time. I ultimately had him go next door and get a friend, whom I got to call the man's psychiatrist, and I made sure he understood not to leave the man alone. The psychiatrist hospitalized the man, and, fortunately, everything worked out."

The son of a noted cello soloist, Schuster, 42, majored in music at the University of Southern California and got an M.A. and Ph.D. from the California School of Professional Psychology. He has been in private practice since 1976, doing individual and group therapy with children and adults. Married to Louise, 38, also a psychologist and "not a computer person at all," they have "a computer crazy son," John, 12, who, says Schuster, "writes to me via electronic mail."

Computer counseling has brought with it new problems. For clients who have an anxiety attack while the doctor is away, Schuster says, "I just put in a message saying, 'Be gone X days. See you when I return.' " And if your computer crashes and the Source is no longer with you? "If they are struggling with a serious problem, they should seek professional help," Schuster advises. "Otherwise they can take two aspirin and call me in the morning."

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