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Alcohol & Other Drugs

Evaluating Mental Health and Substance Use Information

BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information

Reprinted from "Health Literacy" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 8 (2), pp. 9-10

With all of the information coming at us these days, it can be hard to filter out what is good information and what information isn’t as good. This is especially true when it comes to information about mental health and substance use. If you’ve been looking online or in the media for information to help yourself or a loved one, you may be frustrated by some the conflicting information you’ve found. With all of the information out there, how do you know what information you can trust?

Mental health and substance use information online

Many of us use the Internet to look up almost everything, and health information is no different. The problem with the Internet, though, is that anyone can post information. This means that you can read an article about depression written by someone who isn’t qualified to talk about depression at all. There is also conflicting information available on the web. One website might say one thing about a substance use treatment and the next site you look at might say the opposite.

Personal experiences online

Many people living with mental disorders or substance use problems share their stories online through websites, blogs, web forums, or other social media. Our own site, HeretoHelp, provides personal stories on our home page. These stories can help inspire hope and connect you to others going through similar experiences. They are an incredibly powerful tool to help you feel less alone, see how others navigated the system, and see what their recovery journey looked like. When you read these stories, it’s important to remember that it’s one person’s experience, not everyone’s experience. For example, a blogger may write that a particular treatment didn’t work for them, but that doesn’t mean the same treatment won’t work for others. Anyone can post almost anything online, so it’s up to you to decide if a website, blog or post is good for you. Here are some key questions to ask:

  • Do you know that you’re reading someone’s personal experiences from the very start?

  • Does the writer claim that their opinions or views are right and everyone else is wrong?

  • Does the writer claim that their own experiences are scientific facts?

  • Does the writer claim to have information that no else has? For example, do they claim to have found a “miracle cure?”

  • Does the writer offer detailed medical advice, even though they aren’t a doctor or other health professional?

  • Is the writer using the site or blog to sell or endorse their own product?

Mental health and substance use information in the media

You can find news media online as well as in print and on TV and radio. But it’s important to mention a few extra points about new media. TV shows that include substance use like drinking or news stories about substance use may be full of mixed messages. For instance, you often see people using substances on TV or in movies, but then a news story might tell you that any substance use is harmful and dangerous. Or you might hear about an instant “miracle cure” for substance use problems, and then hear that no treatment ever works. The problem is that a brief news story often can’t explain the full story when it comes to mental health concerns, substance use concerns or recovery options. Space or airtime in the news is limited and very expensive. Major news stories are not always balanced and might be sensational and exciting. A story may be entertaining, but it may not apply to all people in all cases. Major news stories may lead you to believe that harmful things are happening to a lot of people, when in reality they might be very rare. News media can help you understand very complicated issues, but information that is too simple can also be misleading. For example, if new research finds a link between depression and bone loss, it’s not unusual to see a headline that says, “Depression causes bone loss,” even though that statement may not accurately describe the relationship.

What should I look for when I’m looking for mental health or substance use information?1

Here are some general things to look online and in the media:

  • Where did the information come from? Is it based on research, an interview or a press release? Does the writer list their credentials?

  • What website is it on? Websites that belong to governments, government-funded agencies, well-known health providers, universities, or groups of medical professionals are generally the most reliable.2

  • Why are they providing the information? Are they trying to sell you something?3 Does the source have anything to gain from a media story?4

  • Can you tell the difference between advertisements and information? A credible website will clearly define ad space. Less credible websites may not, so advertisements may look like part of the information.5

  • Does the story seem to accurately describe the problem or the information?6 Does it seem logical to you?

  • Does the story reflect both the possible harms and benefits? Does the story mention any alternatives?

  • Does the story seem balanced? Does the story make it seem like a problem hurts (or helps) more people than it really does, or does it make something sound scarier than it really is? A balanced story generally gives real numbers.7

  • Does the story claim to know everything, or does it mention that we don’t know everything about all the issues?8

  • How new is the information? If it’s more than a couple of years old, it may be outdated.9

  • Does the writer offer overly simple solutions for complicated problems? This is a huge warning sign.

  • Does the story respect everyone? Does it encourage you to think, ask questions and make your own decisions?10

Where can I go from here?

If you’re concerned about something you’ve heard, talk to your doctor or mental health care professional. If you’re concerned about a medication, always talk to your doctor before you make a decision. You can also:

  • Get a second opinion from a trusted source for health information

  • Look for more stories from different media sources like newspapers or news stations

  • Read many different personal experiences from different places, online and offline in books. This is one of the best ways to benefit from what they have to offer.

Footnotes:
  1. Based on: Media Doctor Canada. “Rating Information: Rating instruments.” http://mediadoctor.ca/content/ratinginformation.jsp.
  2. HON. “Looking for reliable health information?” www.hon.ch/HONcode/Patients/visitor_safeUse2.html.
  3. HON. “Looking for reliable health information?” www.hon.ch/HONcode/Patients/visitor_safeUse2.html.
  4. Reist, D. (2004). Preventing Addictions [fact sheet]. Vancouver, BC: BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.
  5. HON. “Looking for reliable health information?” www.hon.ch/HONcode/Patients/visitor_safeUse2.html.
  6. Reist, D. (2004). Preventing Addictions [fact sheet]. Vancouver, BC: BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.
  7. Based on: Media Doctor Canada. “Rating Information: Rating instruments.” http://mediadoctor.ca/content/ratinginformation.jsp.
  8. Reist, D. (2004). Preventing Addictions [fact sheet]. Vancouver, BC: BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.
  9. HON. “Looking for reliable health information?” www.hon.ch/HONcode/Patients/visitor_safeUse2.html.
  10. Reist, D. (2004). Preventing Addictions [fact sheet]. Vancouver, BC: BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.

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