Reprinted from "Families" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (3), p. 40
Over the last ten years, the amount of information available on the internet has grown exponentially. As anyone who has been online can attest, the information can range from the useful to the not-so- useful to the downright dangerous. Unlike most health books or journals, not all health information on the internet is written or checked by a reputable source, whether that be a health professional or a consumer or family member with extensive firsthand experience.
Some websites with comprehensive information on mental health and addictions will have contradicting information. That’s why it’s critical to pay careful attention to see where your information is coming from. A key rule of thumb when evaluating health resources on the internet is to judge a site by the following six key criteria:
Authority: As a browser, you should make careful note of whether the author of the material is clearly identified and what their level of expertise and training might be. Is he or she a doctor or counsellor? A person with first-hand knowledge of mental health or addictions issues? Someone with relevant personal experience as a friend or family member? In these cases, it is advisable to have at least partial contact information where a person can be reached. In cases where no author is listed, look carefully to see who published the information – government, a non-profit, an association of treatment professionals, an individual, or perhaps a pharmaceutical company? Do you trust these sources? The people supporting this material should be reputable, familiar, and have a track record in dealing with the issues they are covering.
Accuracy: Accuracy is important; bad health information can cause serious damage to your health if you take the wrong advice. Some key points to consider include checking to ensure that the article has a list of references where you can see the supporting information, whether the article has explained the research method used to obtain data, and if this information is easy to find.
Objectivity: Ask yourself a question after you finish reading some information: was this a marketing pitch, or was this presented in an objective manner? Is the purpose of this website to sell or promote a particular product or philosophy or to simply provide information that I can use to make my own decision? An objective website will provide many sides of the issue, including downsides, in order for you to make an informed decision. Sponsorship information should also be clearly presented if the website was funded or sponsored by any third party. Websites promoting ‘quick fixes’ to anything health related should be disregarded.
Coverage: Another important question to ask is whether a particular site provides comprehensive information on the particular condition you are researching. For example, if you are searching for information on depression, does the site include links to information about anxiety, or different types of depression? Does it discuss both pharmaceutical and cognitive-behavioural therapies? What about the misuse of alcohol or other drugs in addition to depression? Or about how families can help a person with depression? You should also look for any innovations such as online selftests, worksheets or message boards. The BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information website at heretohelp.bc.ca is a good example of a site with broad coverage, linkages to information all over the web, and interactive features and tools.
Currency: It’s essential that any health information site that you use has the latest information available. Somewhere on the page should be an indication when the material was written and last updated. Links on the page should also be kept up to date. A vast number of websites launched are never updated, meaning some information on the web could be more than 10 years old.
Design: The site should be clearly organized, separated into individual pages on different issues or linked in such a way that you can click on a link and scroll to a part in the page where the information is located. The site should be easy to understand. There should be a search function available and visual elements should enhance and not detract from the resource. The interactive features should increase usability, and the site should be accessible without downloading special plug-ins or viewers.
It is always important to discuss any health information you find online with your mental health professional. The web often acts as a platform for various causes or ideas and it is important to make sure you are getting the best information. Used properly, however, the web is an invaluable information resource that can help you gain more information about a diagnosis.
About the author
Mykle is a Communications Officer at the Canadian Mental Health's Association, BC Division