The State of Mental Health Online 1998

Mental health professionals may be surprised to discover how much is happening online today in the behavioral healthcare field. Working closely with dozens of online professionals and leading online discussions with hundreds of others, I believe I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on and what is in store for us professionals in the near future online. Here’s my summary of some of the current online mental health issues of interest. (I should note that I am involved in some manner with virtually every resource discussed.)

Communities & Discussion
For the most part, behavioral healthcare professionals continue to use the online world like most people do — to exchange information and communicate with one another. This hasn’t changed all that much since I got on the Internet in 1991 and isn’t likely to change much in upcoming years. What will change are the exact mechanisms and technologies used to access online services.

Right now, online communities and discussion forums remain by far the most popular areas for professionals to enjoy. Behavior OnLine, as you know so well, is one of the leaders in this area and continues to be a shining example of how to build a solid, high-quality professional community online. In the upcoming months, Behavior OnLine will be improving its discussion forum interface, adding regular real-time chat events, and implementing other quality-enhancing features which will greatly add to your experience as a member.

Mailing lists (aka listservs) remain popular with professionals online as well, usually because of their increased privacy and stability. For instance, one of the mailing lists I host, Psychology of the Internet: Research & Theory, continues to enjoy ongoing discussions about research and theory into online behavior. Some of the more notable recent topics include the Larry Froistad case and the validity of Internet addiction disorder. Hundreds of other professional mailing lists also exist, on topics ranging from cognitive science and psychopharmacology to psychoanalytic theory and social work topics. If you haven’t ever tried subscribing to one of these e-mail based forums, I highly recommend trying one out. Not only are they good for the collegial chat, but they can also help you keep up to speed with new treatments, theories, news, and current issues in the field.

Continuing Education
Another way to stay current is to take continuing education courses. While we’re used to taking such courses in person, the idea of taking them online is still new and intriguing. While a variety of such continuing education offering are now available, most are nothing more than asking you to read a great deal of text online, follow a few links, and then answer some general questions about what you’ve just read. Not exactly cutting-edge stuff there. In fact, home courses and audiotapes have been available for years and allow you to do just that.

To make the most of online technologies, we took a different tack. Behavior OnLine has teamed up with Mental Health Net, the site I oversee, to offeraudioPsych(tm). This innovative educational offering allows you to listen to a speaker present on various behavioral healthcare topics, ranging from cognitive therapy for the treatment of personality disorders to psychopharmacology in depression and sleep disorders. At the same time as you’re listening to the audio transmitted to your computer through the Internet, slides automatically appear on your computer screen just as if you were in the room with presenter, taking the course live! A number of distinguished faculty are included in audioPsych’s course offerings, including C. Keith Conners, Ph.D., Peter Salovey, Ph.D., Theodore Million, Ph.D., D.Sc., Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D., James Pretzer, Ph.D., and Barbara Fleming, Ph.D., among others.

This kind of technology is not for the faint-of-heart, though. It is recommended you have a 28.8K or better Internet connection, do not connect to the Internet through a commercial service such as America OnLine or Compuserve (because their Internet connections are too crowded for this kind of application), and have at least a Pentium PC or PowerPC Mac. You can try it out for free, though, as every course has an associated 15-20 minute demonstration. If you’re looking for a unique way to fulfill your continuing education requirements, audioPsych is worth a try.

Online Professional Associations
While you can find nearly any professional association online today, you can also find entirely new organizations and services sprouting up because of the online world. The most notable example of such a new association is The International Society for Mental Health Online (ISMHO). This nonprofit’s main purpose is to help promote mental health activities and services online, and hopefully adopt some standards in the meantime. For example, one of the areas under discussion in the organization is how to help Web readers distinguish between ** questionable (fraudulent) online mental health services and legitimate services. While services like Credential Check help a consumer with online counselors who volunteer to become credentialed, it does nothing for a wide range of other online services in behavioral healthcare and doesn’t address the truly abusive sites.

ISMHO was formed in the wake of other online professional organizations which have been formed, only to have little to come from their formation. For instance, InterPsych was formed years ago as a coalition of professional mailing lists. This was a good idea, but it seems like it has never really amounted to much. (** above clause is argumentative and will be taken as a slap at Interpsyc. Instead say something like: ,but has not adapted well to technological changes. ISMHO hopes to be much more proactive in helping both professionals and consumers in their online journeys. If you would like additional information about the organization and how to join, please visit ISMHO’s Web site.

Learning More
Want to learn more about these developments and more online? The Cape Cod Institute has generously hosted the Connected Computer symposium for the past three years. Now renamed in its fourth year on the Cape, The Insider’s Guide to Mental Health Resources Online helps professionals who are relatively new online to get up to speed, find relevant resources faster and easier, and make the online world a little less foreign. This year, I am pleased to share presenting it with Gil Levin, the publisher of Behavior OnLine, and 11 other visiting faculty who will share their knowledge and experiences via teleconferencing and similar technologies. If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and resource available to you online, or just want to learn to better market your practice online, then this is the course for you. Check out the Institute’s entire catalog while you’re visiting their Web site.

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