Compassion Matters

How to save a life

The Internet: A Game Changer for Mental Health

Is Google the new gateway to mental health?

Study after study is showing that the vast majority of Internet users are turning to the World Wide Web for answers to their health related questions. Although fewer studies have been done in the field of mental health, we are learning that the Internet is quickly becoming a go-to resource for millions of individuals looking for information concerning mental health. For example, the word “depression” is searched on Google more than 7 million times each month. At PsychAlive.org, we get hits everyday from individuals looking for information on topics as diverse as suicide prevention, attachment style and fear of intimacy, and each week it seems a new client gets in touch with me after having read one of my blogs.

According to researchers John Powell and Aileen Clarke, who conducted a population survey for the British Journal of Psychiatry, “The Internet has a significant role in mental health information-seeking.” New studies show that “28% of Internet users look online for information about depression, anxiety, stress or mental health issues.” These numbers increase in younger generations, with 1/3 of teenagers now utilizing the Internet to seek out mental health related information and more than 1/3 of individuals between the ages of 18-29.  

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 This month, a study led by research professor at San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health, Dr. John W. Ayers, even used Google searches as a means of gathering data on how mental illness correlated with seasonal patterns. According to Ayers, when it comes to research "the Internet is a game changer. By passively monitoring how individuals search online we can figuratively look inside the heads of searchers to understand population mental health patterns." Ayers speculates that “Because of mental health’s complexity, stigma, and obstacles to care, patients are likely to investigate their problems on-line.”

I believe this steady up-tick in individuals reaching out with mental health queries online presents psychologists and other mental health professionals with the unique responsibility of making sure that sound psychological information is available online. On  May 7, I'm presenting the Webinar "Social Media and Marketing for Mental Health Professionals," which will explore how mental health professionals can effectively use new media, including blogs, social networks and YouTube to reach a wider audience online. These platforms present us with the unique opportunity to provide valuable resources to a larger audience than ever before and to encourage millions of individuals to get the treatment they may need.

This is important because individuals often seek out information at times when they are especially worried about themselves or their loved ones and are particularly open to or in need of treatment. As Dr. Ayers and his fellow researchers point out, “Mental health queries principally derive from primary (self-diagnosis or treatment) and secondary (those connected to an affected person) sources” and “studies suggest that queries are attributable to information seeking around incidence, recurrence, or increased severity of mental illness.”

Psychology Today’s extensive network of expert bloggers and engaged social network communities is one example of answering the public’s mental health information seeking. My goal as the Senior Editor at PsychAlive.org is to help fill the growing need for good mental health content online. We are developing a psychological hub online by blogging, connecting individuals to quality resources through links, inviting expert guest bloggers to write about their areas of expertise, leading free and continuing education webinars, producing video clips of experts with sound advice for the general public, and offering a free, privacy-protected workshop for individuals to develop themselves.

Although no one has control over what exactly individuals will find when they type their questions into a search box, we can do our best to create quality content and get valuable information and resources to the people who are searching for them. Mental Health professionals can benefit from recognizing that the new gateway to mental health may pass through the information superhighway. For those of us who entered the field of psychology because we had a strong desire to help people, the Internet is offering us a unique opportunity to do just that.

Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the May 7 Webinar "Social Media and Marketing for Mental Health Professionals"

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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