I mentioned in my last post how it is the best of times and the worst of times for mental illness and treatment education. There are no shortage of online sources of mental illness information: websites, discussion groups, blogs, news, self-assessment tests and everything else in between. It’s as if we can diagnose ourselves and pick our own treatment all without leaving the warmth of our laptop on our thighs.
But the anonymity of the internet means that everyone you meet might just be a 12-year-old girl with a big vocabulary and no idea what she’s talking about. So just who are you supposed to trust for mental illness information?
Mental Illness Reporting in the News
The news is a great place to learn about the latest on Lindsay Lohan or why your bar of soap might be secretly killing you, but it’s not a good place for accurate medical reporting. News media runs on sensationalism. They have to in order to grab an audience. As such even principled papers like the New York Times run pieces that are horribly one-sided and focus on a tiny piece of a huge overall picture. So enjoy your Sunday crossword puzzle with coffee, but don’t expect actual education on mental health issues.
Famous People and Mental Illness
This is an even worse place to learn from than the news. While certainly there are some really caring people who happen to be famous and also want to help people, that number is infinitesimal. Famous people have no more credibility than your next-door neighbor, in fact, they may have less.
Mental Illness Blogs
Well, here I am, writing on a blog, so you’d think I’d be a big fan, well, I’m not. Not because I don’t know what I’m talking about, but very much the opposite: I do know what I’m talking about. When I write an article it is either my opinion and clearly stated as such or is evidence-based and has linked source material. I would never state that no one should take antipsychotics because that’s an incredibly ignorant thing to say with no basis in actual fact.
But as blogs are an informal medium and people feel free to say such things with impunity. People will tell you what meds to take, meds not to take, therapies to try, supplements to eat, diets to have and pretty much everything else. These are not accurate and they are not based in fact unless they are documented by reputable sources. You cannot believe what you read in a blog unless you investigate it first. You just can’t.
[And as a side note, advertisers will slip ads directly into blog copy so it appears the author wrote it and is endorsing their product. I've had offers to do this. I find it abhorrent.]
Mental Health Websites Websites
Websites often look very official and appear to provide accurate and impartial information. You absolutely cannot believe a book, or a website, by its graphic design. Websites are often put up by special interest groups and some of these look very real but are in fact simply placed there with biased quotes and for the purpose of an agenda, generally anti-psychiatry. No, you cannot believe it just because it’s on a website, even if the website looks really good.
If you do want to vet a website, make sure it’s overseen by doctors, and not just any doctors, but doctors who can be verified and are in good medical standing. Not everyone who writes for a website has to be a doctor, but a doctor should oversee all content. The content should be impartial. A website that’s specifically anti-benzodiazepine, for example, isn’t. And finally, you can look for the HONcode seal (seen here and at the bottom of every HealthyPlace page). HONcode is a non-profit, non-governmental global organization that aims to certify ethical standards in health information on the web.
And don’t forget, every author, including doctors, should disclose any possible conflicts of interest.
Trust But Verify
And even if you check the above, you have to verify it by talking to a real flesh-and-blood doctor, because even if the people reporting the information try to be accurate, they might be wrong, or it might not apply to you due to special circumstances. There is no replacement for a doctor when it comes to mental health information.
You Can Have Any Opinion You Want, Just Don’t Represent It As Fact
This is the internet after all, and everyone has the right to get on any soapbox they want. Just remember to engage your critical thinking skills when reading and writing such things, because it’s your brain and the brains of others, on the line.