Feeling depressed? Why not talk it over with your computer?

Overcoming Depression, a $200 program for IBM PCs and compatibles, is intended to help the estimated 25 percent of the population that is depressed at some time. The program combines a text-based tutorial with the opportunity for you to go through a free-association session while the computer plays the role of therapist.

This isn't the first time I've seen a program designed to help people overcome psychological problems, but the credentials of its authors along with its $200 price prompted me to take a serious look.

While the program can be educational and fun, I seriously question its therapeutic value and worry that for some severely depressed people, it could even be dangerous.

The program's content was written by Kenneth M. Colby, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine.

The program, which Colby refers to as a tutorial, is organized into seven lessons: Negative Self-Comparisons in Depression, Mood Ratios and Value Dimensions, Ideal Standards, Reprogramming Yourself, Obstacles to Overcoming Depression, Changing Values, and Suicide and Antidepressant Medication.

Each lesson begins with textual information that, like a book, explains the topic so that the user can better understand depression and how it can be overcome.

Lesson one begins with an explanation of the program's goals, saying "it can help in the same way that books inform you about bad-back problems or controlling cholesterol." Later the program says it can help with "specific cognitive strategies and tactics for working your way out of your depression {through} explanations, instructions, examples and homework exercises."

After a few screens of text, the program asks three yes or no questions: "Do you feel sad frequently?" "Do you feel sad for days and weeks at a time?" and "Do you have a low opinion of yourself?"

After you've answered these questions, the program goes into its dialogue mode where you are instructed to "express your thoughts and feelings in your own words." In other words, you interact with the computer as if it were a therapist.

This part of the program can be fun and it can even lead to insights. But if you weren't crazy when you start using it, you're likely to be driven there by the program.

The software, according to Colby, is able to comprehend about 30,000 words and, if it recognizes the words you type, it responds in a way that its authors feel might be appropriate. But it makes lots of mistakes. I engaged the program in a discussion about being overweight. I'm not overweight now, but the problem has haunted me in the past.

Here is a transcript of the dialogue.

Larry: "I am upset because I am overweight."

Program: "What makes you so upset with yourself?"

Larry: "I'm too fat."

Program: "How come you are fat?"

Larry: "Because I eat too much."

Program: "When you are upset, your appetite can increase or decrease, which I admit is not very useful information."

Larry: "I know that."

Program: "What else can you say about what you know in this regard?"

Larry: "I think I would feel better if I were thin."

Program: "Why are you thin?"

Larry: "I'm not thin, I'm fat."

Program: "Why aren't you thin?"

Larry: "Forget it."

It gets worse. At one point the program asked me about my eating habits and I said that I sometimes "binge." The program associated "binge" with a drinking problem so it asked irrelevant questions about drinking.

I wouldn't mind the program if it were sold as a curiosity item. Nor would I object if it were presented purely as an experiment. But this program is priced and promoted as serious therapy. Its 15-page manual doesn't even carry the usual disclosures and warnings about seeking professional help.

I would consider it a tragedy if a severely depressed individual turned to this program instead of seeking help from a qualified professional. Colby, however, argues that "90 percent of the people with mental health problems never get to see a mental health professional because of the high cost and social stigma." Users "even like the program's mistakes," he said. "As a patient the doctor is in control. Here you can laugh at its mistakes."

Overcoming Depression is published by Malibu Artifactual Intelligence Works, 25307 Malibu Road, Malibu, Calif. 90265. Phone: 213-456-7787. Readers' comments are welcomed. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, P.O. Box 620477, Woodside, Calif. 94062, or contact the L. Magid account on the MCI electronic mail system.