Underestimated. Overlooked. Virtually ignored. All too often, the most powerful resources and those which do the most good online are simply left by the side of the technological highway. Passed over for more sexy topics (such as so-called “Internet Addiction Disorder”) by the media, the reality of the current state of self-help online is worth taking a look at. I, for one, am thankful that USA Today published a story on the phenomenon of self-help resources online, because it was needed.
Online self-help resources come in many forms for those suffering from relationship problems, emotional disorders, or mental illnesses. Most common are the self-help support groups found on mailing lists and newsgroups. In these groups, people who suffer from similar problems come together to offer each other support and share their common experiences. Oft-asked questions are gladly answered and a warm virtual hug is often given to those most in need. People check in on a daily basis to make sure everything is going alright. Or just to let everyone else know they are still alive, or still in pain, or are especially hurting. Self-help isn’t all joy and happiness, after all. It means pulling those resources which reside within you together enough to help yourself. Sharing your feelings, your experiences, your pain with others often helps this process.
Another online resource of value to those seeking to help themselves with their problems is to try and find additional information about their disorder. This is most often done through a Web site, using a guide (like Psych Central below, Health World or this site) or a search engine to get you started. I think objective, useful information is very important in helping a person to learn more about what exactly it is they may be having difficulty with and how to treat the problem. I also believe that the advent of the World Wide Web has made such information more readily available and certainly more accessible to a wider array of people. This is a great starting point.
Also found on the Web are other people’s own Web sites which include a wealth of information about a specific problem or disorder. There are hundreds of Web sites online today which share information and experiences with others about combatting specific disorders. These are sometimes sites put together by novices with very little useful information, but are also often very large and powerful sites, which provide access to lots of useful information, real-world contacts, personal stories, and links. I list a few of them here, but you’ll find even more of them in a larger guide. The point is that professionals do not have a monopoly on objective and useful information in any area. You don’t have to have gone to graduate school, or even college, to gather information and disseminate it to others. Those who suffer through depression or an eating disorder probably have a much better idea about what others with the same problems are most looking for from a Web site anyway.
The Web is also home to other discussion forums, such as those found on Mental Health Net. When I opened these soon after MHN opened in 1995, I didn’t put much work into them or think they would be used all that much. I started with 1, which sprouted into 5 within the first few months, which now numbers a dozen. Plans for 4 or 5 more are on my desk, but I haven’t yet had time to implement them. These are active, useful forums for the hundreds of people which visit them each day, many returning daily to read and contribute new messages. Most of the forums are oriented toward self-help and mutual support and most of them are far more popular than I had ever imagined. I — as do many professionals — took the power of self-help for granted. I am happy to see the forums flourish as they have, though.
I have been pushing the value of self-help books online ever since I agreed to publish the American Self-Help Clearinghouse’s Self-Help Sourcebook Online, with cooperation and a great deal of help by Ed Madara and Barbara White. This online book allows you to search for self-help support organizations around the world for any disorder, medical or mental. It’s easy to use and provides you with the name of an association and its contact information (address, phone number, e-mail address), as well as a good description of each organization’s purpose. It is an invaluable addition to the online world. Building upon the success of this book, I agree to publish another book online as well, entitled Psychological Self-Help by Clay Tucker-Ladd, Ph.D. This book, over 1,000 pages long!, goes into great detail and depth about how to try and combat many common problems (e.g., depression, anxiety) through self-help methods. Detailed, engaging and full of many useful suggestions, you can catch a sneak preview of the release of the book here next week. Look for the link.
Chats are another form online where people gather to find mutual support and information. Most of the popular ones seem to be run on IRC, through the Undernet or one of the other IRC networks. Others use proprietary software, such as the Palace, or use MUD or MOO software. Still others reside on the Web, at places like the WebChat Broadcasting System. No matter what their form, however, they are all very active and supportive places in their own right. People choose the modality they are most comfortable with and learn to use it. And use it they do. I have very often found that it is much easier for people to talk to one another about very difficult or painful issues or experiences online than they could ever do face-to-face with another person.
I’ve seen people’s lives saved in virtual self-help support groups. That is why I will continue to write here and elsewhere about their power and usefulness. Self-help support is an often-overlooked treatment modality in and of itself, as well as an adjunct to professional treatment. It is also often misunderstood by professionals and passed over by others in general. I think that’s a shame and hope I can, in whatever small way, continue to work to educate my colleagues and others about the importance of self-help as a part of a balanced, holistic treatment approach.
If you want the whole shi-bang of over 10,000 separate resources that have to do with psychiatry and mental health online, then you might want to visit Psych Central. It’s the largest and most comprehensive site of its kind in the world and we’re looking to build upon it in the upcoming years, acting as a super guide to mental health online. If you didn’t find what you needed here, look there next!