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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Informed Choices

Evaluating treatment options that work for you

Stephanie Wilson, BA

Reprinted from the "Treatments: What Works?" issue of Visions Journal, 2015 15 (4), pp. 11-13

Finding a treatment approach to manage symptoms, improve quality of life and well-being, and start the recovery process is a priority when someone experiences a health problem or illness.

Choosing a treatment—whether mainstream treatments, alternative treatments or a combination of the two—is not always straightforward. There may be a lot of information to consider, and you’ll likely come across contradicting points of view or different ideas of the ‘best’ way to help yourself.

The key is learning to evaluate different sources of information so you can make decisions that support your goals and your own perspectives or values. Your doctor or other members of your health care team can provide good feedback and support around mainstream treatments and some alternative treatments. But if you pursue other alternative approaches on your own, you may not have this kind of professional assistance.

Evaluating information

There are countless news stories, articles, websites and blog posts about mental health and treatments for mental illnesses. It’s up to you to determine what information is trustworthy and how deeply it should influence your opinions.

Here are good questions to ask when you’re considering any information, whether it’s new research, a news story or an article on a website

  • Does the writer provide their own credentials?

  • Are there footnotes or references so you know where the information came from? Is it based on published research, the writer’s own research, an interview or personal opinions?

  • What is the motivation behind the story, article or website? Is someone trying to sell a product or service? Does the source of an interview or story have something to gain by sharing their story?

  • Does the information seem to accurately describe the problem or issue? Or does it make extreme claims or is it presented as a secret nobody else knows?

  • Does the information seem overly simple for a complicated problem?

  • Does the information respect you and your experiences? Do you see stereotypes, prejudice, or discrimination?

  • Is the information balanced? Does it recognize both sides to the issue? Do you sense bias or exaggeration? For example, does it discuss potential downsides? Most treatments have downsides, from cost to time-to-treat to side effects.

  • Does the story offer any alternatives?

  • Does it encourage you to think and to ask questions?

  • How new is the information? Look for a date. If it’s more than a couple of years old, it may be outdated.

It’s also important to evaluate information in the context of your own situation. For example, there are people and organizations who claim mental illnesses like depression are related to nutritional deficiencies, so one should be taking many supplements.1 It’s true that some vitamin deficiencies may be a factor in some mental illnesses—for example, there is evidence that vitamin D deficiencies may be a factor in depression.2 The danger in the first example is that a single factor is presented as the only factor in treating a mental illness. For people who are medically tested to be deficient, vitamin supplements may greatly improve their symptoms. However, that doesn’t mean all people who experience depression will benefit from the same supplementation. And it may not be safe for everyone—just because something is “natural” doesn’t make it automatically safe. So, taking vitamin supplements is not necessarily a program you should try on your own without medical supervision and regular checkups.

Evaluating websites

When you evaluate the information you read on the website, also consider:

  • Is this a credible (believable, trustworthy) website? Government, government-funded agencies, well-known health providers, universities or groups of medical professionals are usually the most reliable.

  • Can you tell the difference between information and advertisements? While web ads are common, on credible sites ads are clearly distinct from information. On less credible sites, ads may look like part of the story or page.

Evaluating research

The most reliable research is found in academic journals. This research is “peer reviewed,” which means it’s looked at by experts in the field and must pass strict quality guidelines. However, not all research is created equal. The way a study is carried out (the methodology) can have a very big impact on the results. Also, human studies that look at large groups and studies that examine existing research (meta analyses and systematic reviews) may provide a better understanding of some of the issues. Research that studies a very small group of people and non-human research, like mice studies, may not be as helpful when you’re thinking about different options. It’s generally a good idea to consider several articles, rather than basing opinions or choices on a single article.

Evaluating personal stories

Personal stories can be a helpful tool when considering different treatment options and different paths in your own recovery. However, not all personal stories are equal. While some personal experience stories may lead people to helpful options, others may be less helpful, and may lead people away from a viable option.

It’s important to think about personal stories as critically as you would about any other information. Writers may share a personal opinion that you disagree with, but this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with their story.

Here are general guidelines to help you identify personal stories that may not be helpful.

The writer:

  • claims their individual experiences are scientific fact

  • claims their thoughts or opinions are the most correct or only correct way to think about the problem (a special red flag if they say your current treatment is harmful)

  • claims to have information that no one else has discovered; beware of the “miracle cure”

  • offers detailed medical advice, even though they are not a doctor or relevant health professional

  • is using their story to sell a product or service

Putting it all together

Consider your own preferences

When you think about treatments or approaches that might help you, it’s important to take your own preferences into account. Everyone has opinions, and maybe even fears, around certain treatments. For example, many people worry about taking medications for various reasons (e.g., side effects, dependency). People may also prefer one approach over others because it better fits with their needs or goals.

Cultural or social values can impact treatment preferences. For example, what one culture call an ‘illness’ may be considered an issue related to spirituality, relationships, or past events in other cultures. These values and preferences are important because people may be alienated by health systems when the explanation of their experiences or the prescribed treatments don’t match with their own understanding of the concern.

Work with your care team

Your doctor and other members of your care team are an important part of your recovery—it’s important that you work together to meet your goals. Bring up your concerns, ask questions and remember that you are an equal partner in your care.

 
About the author

Stephanie is Editorial Coordinator for Visions and a plain-language content developer for the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information

This article is informed by, and adapted in part from, two info sheets that Stephanie led the development of: Evaluating Health Information and Working with Your Doctor for Mental Illnesses. Both are available at heretohelp.bc.ca

Footnotes:
  1. Borchard, Therese. (2014, November 14). 10 Nutritional Deficiencies That May Cause Depression.www.everydayhealth.com/columns/therese-borchard-sanity-break/nutritional-deficiencies-that-may-cause-depression

  2. Spedding, S. (2014). Vitamin D and Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Comparing Studies with and without Biological Flaws. Nutrients, 6(4), 1501-1518.

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