Q: I know there’s a lot of information on the internet relevant to my practice, but whenever I try to do any research on the web, I soon get lost in a vast, impenetrable maze of information. How do I efficiently search for what I need and distinguish legitimate websites from unreliable ones?
A: Let’s first consider how to do effective online searches from scratch. I assume you already know about going to the Yahoo! and Google (www.yahoo.com and www.google.com) search engines, where you type in a word or phrase and troll through the results (which can number in the thousands). You may luck out right away and come up with what you want on the first page, or you may spend hours batting around from site to site, never quite hitting the target. But you can isolate phrases on these search engines to quickly and painlessly bring you more relevant results. For example, instead of typing in depression treatment efficacy, you could rephrase the query, using quotation marks, to read, “depression treatment” efficacy.
Another trick is to use the minus (-) sign, available at most search engines today, which allows you to quickly and efficiently remove the irrelevant sites cluttering up your search results. For instance, lots of e-commerce sites pop up during most searches, when what you want to do is research, not shop. The phrase psychotherapy treatment brings up lots of books for sale about psychotherapy treatment. If you only want to read online articles, you’ll want to get rid of any results that mention the word book. Therefore, type in, psychotherapy treatment -book. Books will still pop up-many Web pages that sell books don’t actually include the word book, but this step will help. Another keyword that helps reduce e-commerce results is -price.
If other books, products, or extraneous material keep turning up, find a word related to these items and minus them as well. For example, looking for psychotherapy treatments, I find a book with the word planner in its title keeps coming up. Since I suspect the word isn’t relevant to my search, I can minus it, too. Thus, I might type psychotherapy treatment -book -price -planner, and eliminate a lot of extraneous sites from the competition.
Websites for Professionals
While the Internet still has a ways to go before it provides as many resources for mental health providers as it does for clients, each professional organization-such as the American Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), National Board for Certified Counselors, or the American Psychiatric Association-has professional areas on its website. These professional sites range from the static and uninspired to the lively and fully interactive, like APApractice.org or the resources found on AAMFT.org. They provide up-to-date news, press releases, practice-management guidelines, and other resources for clinicians and researchers. Some sites are more focused, such as Psychotherapy Finances (www.psyfin.com), which keeps readers up-to-date on economic and financial issues affecting therapists and provides marketing tips and “case studies” of clinicians who’ve successfully carved out particular (and sometimes peculiar) specialty niches. Open Minds (www.openminds.com), a behavioral health care consulting firm, is another site that provides useful news and information on the behavioral health care industry. CMHC Systems provides an interesting quarterly magazine examining how behavioral health care and technology interact (www.cmhc.com).
There are many continuing education courses available for approved credit online. These range from the straightforward (read an article, take a quiz) to more interactive and imaginative (ongoing professional lectures and “join-in” discussions by participants). The Psychotherapy Networker offers a website (www.psychotherapynetworker.org) that’s oriented toward psychologists, counselors, and social workers. It offers numerous continuing education opportunities, selections from the magazine, and more. PsychCEU.com is accredited for nurses, psychologists, and social workers, offering a variety of online courses that require the purchase of either online books (e-books) or paper texts to qualify for the continuing education credit. AtHealth.com provides access to hundreds of online articles with quizzes that can be taken for between one and three continuing education credits. The topics range from law and ethics to clinical treatment and diagnosis. PsyBC.com offers a range of continuing education methods, including time-limited symposia, seminars, conferences, online reading, and an ongoing, interactive lecture series aimed at a wide variety of professionals. This site offers many types of courses for a broad range of professionals.
Professionals also use the internet to network and socialize with other professionals in private forums. Most of these discussions take place on electronic mailing lists or listservs, whose archives are usually not publicly available, making them more private. Because mailing lists send subscribers individual e-mails (or a single daily digest of all the e-mails) automatically, users don’t need to remember to visit a special website or login every day to keep up-to-date. Some popular online professional groups may be found at:
International Society for Mental Health Online
St. John’s Mailing Lists
Psych Central Professional Mailing Lists
Quality Mental Health Sites for Clients
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these sites have reliable, useful, mental health information and generally meet the criteria above. They can be recommended to clients without qualms.
– American Psychological Association’s Help Center http://helping.apa.org
The American Psychological Association publishes this site to help individuals better understand whatever psychological issues they may face. Most of the articles include dates and authors, and are written in a style accessible to nonprofessionals.
– At Health
At Health includes information on specific disorders and articles written by a wide variety of professionals. The site also includes a practitioner’s directory, regularly updated newsletters, and self-help stories.
Drug Digest is a site that provides a searchable drug and herb database. It’s written in plain English and explains what each medication is used for, how it works, common side effects and interactions, how it should be taken, etc.
– National Institute of Mental Health
Although the consumer mental health brochures aren’t updated here as frequently as I’d like, the government’s mental health resource publishes reliable information on a wide variety of disorders, including symptoms, treatments, and resources. It also publishes professional resources, including grant opportunities.
– National Mental Health Association
The National Mental Health Association’s website is a rich source of consumer information. Its fact sheets cover disorders and explain how mental illness affects specific groups. It also provides mental health advocacy information, news, a calendar of events, and links to affiliates within an individual’s community.
– Psych Central
My own site, online since 1995, is a guide to thousands of peer-reviewed mental health resources online. It offers hundreds of articles on mental health issues, symptoms, and treatments, as well as a drug database. It publishes news headlines (updated daily), a psychology blog, and book reviews. It also provides an active self-help forum.
Once you’ve found what looks like a promising domain or website, how do you know the information you find there is truthful, balanced, and valid? Anybody can publish anything on the Web at any time, which makes it a superb in-home research library, but also a staggeringly huge repository of thinly disguised trash. Therapists need some basic guidelines for discriminating between the good, the bad, and the mediocre, not only for doing their own research, but for educating their clients.
If you really want to become an expert at discerning dross from gold, go the website of the American Medical Association at www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/1905.html. Here you’ll find the article “Guidelines for Medical and Health Information Sites on the Internet,” by M. A. Winker et al., which includes dozens of guidelines for determining good quality, online health information. For people less inclined to weigh every website they come across against this long list of criteria, here are four basic guidelines to help you judge websites:
Authorship and Affiliation. To know whether to trust the information you’re reading, you need some background information on the author. Look for the author’s name, degrees, and affiliation. While not every good article must be written by a Ph.D., M.D., or M.S.W. affiliated with a major institution, a site offering carries more validity and inspires more confidence if written by a credentialed professional from a specific organization.
Bias Transparency. Most authors have an agenda, no matter how impressive their degrees, exalted their reputations, and academically stellar their institutions. Wary readers need to consider an author’s motivations for writing something, which helps determine how much value to put on the information they see online. For instance, information on drugs from the National Institute of Mental Health is likely to be less biased than that from a pharmaceutical company. Bias is sometimes difficult to discern, because it often stems from perfectly understandable motivations. Therapists may emphasize the benefits of psychotherapy over medications because they do therapy, they believe in therapy, they love therapy. And, of course, the reverse is true for psychiatrists, whose practices rely mainly on prescribing medications. Furthermore, if professionals publish a website, their links are likely to reinforce their own biases.
Publication and Review Dates. Information, like bread, has a shelf life. Look for dates indicating when the information was first published and last reviewed, to make sure it isn’t long past its usefulness.
What kinds of information the website collects
What it does with the information internally (for instance, how long it keeps it; whether it uses it for in aggregate for marketing purposes; how it secures your information)
How it uses the information
Whether it shares the information with any third party and, if so, for what purpose.
This information shouldn’t be buried on the website. If you can’t discover quickly and easily what’ll happen to your personal information, it’s best not to provide it.
Websites that accept and display advertising should also have and make available (usually as part of the privacy information) their policy on advertising, and what influence, if any, advertisers have over the site’s content. The words sponsored by, for example, may mean that the advertiser calls the tune. The advertising information should also indicate whether the revenues generated by advertising are the partial, main, or sole source of revenue for the site.
John M. Grohol, PsyD, is an expert in online psychology and behavior, a developer, researcher, author, and founder of one of the leading mental health networks online today, PsychCentral.com, named one of the 50 Best Websites of 2008 by TIME.com. He sits on the editorial board of the journal CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine.