Evaluating the Quality of Mental Health Websites
Since the advent of the Web in the early 1990s, tens of thousands of consumer-oriented mental health Web sites have been created. Over 12 million results come up in the Google search engine when searching for the term “mental health.” Practitioners and their clients can easily be overwhelmed by this sheer volume of information available online.
Questions about the quality of information online are also a concern, especially to mental health practitioners. How do you recommend high-quality Web sites in mental health when there are so many to choose from? This article will describe some common qualities to look for in a site and give you some common starting points to help you find reliable and updated mental health information and support groups online. These are the criteria that Psych Central uses to rate and review websites we include in our peer-reviewed Resource Directory.
Qualities of a Good Site
There have been an abundance of articles published about how to recognize sites that are more likely to contain reliable, quality information. The American Medical Association, for instance, has published an article describing a laundry list of dozens of guidelines for helping to determine quality online health information. Most practitioners and their clients, however, do not have the time nor inclination to evaluate each and every health Web site they come across against dozens of criteria. Most professional guidelines focus on common areas: authorship and affiliation, bias transparency, publication and review dates, and privacy and advertising policies.
Authorship and Affiliation
Every page on the Internet has been authored by someone, somewhere, at some specific time in the past. Unfortunately most pages on most sites do not include this very basic information. Mental health sites often do better in this area, since the authors want to take credit for their work. In evaluating authorship, the reader should look for the author’s name, degrees, and affiliation. (To find the author’s related work, simply copy and paste the author’s name and degrees into a search engine such as Google, putting quotation marks around the whole phrase.)
If authorship and affiliation is not readily evident, the reader should already begin to question the validity of the article. An article written by a Ph.D. from a university discussing a new medication may carry more weight in people’s minds than an article written by someone with no credentials who works for a pharmaceutical company. Authorship also helps one determine possible bias in the article’s presentation of information.
Nearly every author of every article ever written has an unspoken agenda that guides their writing. Psychologists, even researchers, can be influenced by their background and education in psychology. Psychiatrists are often influenced by pharmaceutical marketing materials and their own medical training. As the old saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, you begin to see nails everywhere. Educated Internet users can use this understanding of author’s motivations to help guide the value they place on information they discover online. A research news brief from the National Institute of Mental Health is likely to be less biased than a research news brief from a pharmaceutical company. A press release from a university describing some new therapy research is likely to be more biased than the actual peer-reviewed study.