The Birth of a New Society: The International Society for Mental Health Online
Republished from the PsychNews International electronic newsletter.
Attempts have been made in the past to organize mental health professionals online to help promote the use of online technologies. Most notably, Interpsych, begun in 1994, sought to bring an organizational structure to a set of professional mailing lists. These attempts, however, have enjoyed limited success. This limited success appears to be related to the often-vague goals of such associations, limited membership (often only for certified professionals), and to the difficulty in organizing inherently asynchronous, independent media (mailing lists) across professional disciplines. None of these limitations, however, are insurmountable given the proper focus, goals, and momentum.
In 1997, I organized and chaired two symposia at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association on online topics. The topics covered the broad areas of research into online behavior and the wide variety of uses psychologists have for the Internet (from therapy online to online professional communities). Even in the midst of a convention of psychologists, however, a psychiatrist known online agreed to participate, bringing an important multi-disciplinary flavor to the presentations.
Before the convention, a mailing list was setup to encourage discussion amongst the various presenters of each symposium. A suggestion was made for us all to meet for lunch sometime during the convention in August, 1997, in a more social setting, where we could all hang out for a while. Most of us had never met one another in-person, but may have known one another online for years.
During lunch, the conversation gradually turned to the realization that most of our colleagues and certainly many consumers don’t have the slightest idea about the benefits and drawbacks of the online world. To most people, the idea that significant beneficial work (and some unintended consequences) is being conducted online is unknown. In addition, even though most of us around the table were aware of one another’s work, we were not often in direct communication or contact. There was little professional collaboration occurring amongst the group, even though it was evident that such collaboration could be beneficial. We envisioned a society of keeping the lines of communication open across disciplines, inclusive of mental health consumers, to coordinate online work in community-building, research, and clinical offerings.
How best to try and capture some of this energy and enthusiasm we all felt at the table, and convey those sentiments to others? Forming a society, international in scope and purpose (much like the online world itself), seemed like the next reasonable step.
The new organization formed is devoted to mental health advocacy and collaboration online for both mental health professionals and consumers. This organization, called the International Society for Mental Health Online (ISMHO), began as a collaboration between everyone at that lunch. Its focus is multipurpose, inclusive of those conducting research online, offering mental health services of some type, examining group and individual behavior and communication, providing educational and psychoeducational resources in mental health, and exploring the use of computer- assisted communication in mental health online.
A mailing list was setup with the initial membership reflecting the participants of the symposia, and a handful of interested others. Martha Ainsworth, an active mental health consumer online, was instrumental in organizing our initial vague ideas of the need for an organization into a well-designed plan for implementation. A mission statement was drafted and approved, and a bylaws committee was formed. In early 1998, the final set of bylaws was approved by the existing members, now up to a few dozen, and an executive committee was nominated.