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ECU professor receives grant to study online treatment for rape victims

GREENVILLE, N.C.   (Dec. 7, 2010)   —   An East Carolina University professor has been awarded $624,000 to study Internet-based psychological treatment for rape victims.

The three-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health will help Dr. Heather Littleton, assistant professor of psychology, develop online cognitive-behavioral treatment for rape victims, a majority of whom don’t seek counseling.

The study will focus on college women who have experienced rape as an adolescent or adult and have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in connection to that experience. About 25 percent of college rape victims have been found to be currently suffering from PTSD.

“They’re fairly recent victims, so it’s a good time to intervene before the symptoms become more chronic,” Littleton said. “They are likely more comfortable than other women doing therapy online or using the Internet, so it seemed like a good place to start.”

Internet-based treatment for psychological trauma is a growing area of study, Littleton said. The U.S. military has shown particular interest in online-based treatment of PTSD-affected veterans, who often live hours from a Veterans Affairs treatment facility.

No model yet exists for rape victims, however.

Starting this month, Littleton will be refining the online intervention program and preparing for a pilot study that will start in the fall. The full clinical trial will start in spring 2012 and run for two years.

Eighty-six women will be randomly divided into two groups: those who can access a website with psycho-educational information, such as information on coping skills, and a second group that receives additional therapist-facilitated online treatment.

“The main focus is on the cognitive restructuring piece,” Littleton said. “We focus on common issues among rape victims, things like feeling to blame for the rape, having difficulty trusting other people, and concerns about safety. [We’re focusing] on identifying and challenging distorted beliefs and thoughts they may have in those areas as a result of the rape.”

Littleton hypothesizes that the latter group will show more effective coping skills and fewer signs of PTSD when interviewed immediately after the 12-week treatment and again three months later.

Ultimately, she said, online treatment might offer a way to reach women who don’t feel comfortable seeking face-to-face counseling.

“Certainly it could be used as part of a free-standing clinic. A college counseling center, perhaps, could offer students the option of pursuing treatment online if they’re more comfortable with that,” Littleton said. “It could also be integrated into medical care as other online treatments, such as for depression, have been.”

The grant’s co-investigator is Dr. Amie E. Grills-Taquechel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston. The clinical trial will recruit women from both professors’ universities.

“Online treatments, which have been empirically supported, have great potential because they may reach individuals who are otherwise unable or unwilling to attend traditional therapy sessions,” Grills-Taquechel wrote in an e-mail. “…With rape victims, in particular, there seems to be a great need to develop effective non-traditional format treatments since less than 1-in-4 will actually seek treatment.”

Littleton, who has been at ECU since 2008, has spent years studying women’s adjustment after sexual assault, including coping among women who don’t classify their experiences as rape even though they meet the legal definition of the crime.

The National Institute of Mental Health is part of the National Institutes of Health, a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Contact: Dr. Heather Littleton | 252-328-6488