You come home from the doctor with a new diagnosis, and where is the first place you go to dig up info? The Internet, of course. Some 72 percent of American web users say they look online for health information, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, the practice of referencing the Internet for health knowledge is so common that it has spawned its own curious condition: “cyberchondria,” or anxiety about symptoms that escalates after surfing the net.
When it comes to topics of mental health, turning to the web for wisdom can be a tricky business. “It is dangerous to blindly accept any information you find on the Internet related to mental health without carefully checking the source and whether the information is relevant to you,” says Gary Kreps, PhD, director of the Center for Health Risk Communication at George Mason University. “While there is a lot of excellent, up-to-date, and evidence-based mental-health information available on the Internet, there is a lot of unreliable information there, too.”
Along with solid medical sources and evidence-backed studies, the Internet brims over with personal stories and comments that are more anecdotal than scientific. It’s inevitable that myths and misconceptions will percolate, so it’s important to keep them in perspective. Kreps recommends looking to trusted government health websites such as those hosted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). And nothing can replace talking to your doctor or other mental-health professional.
In the meantime, here are a few cyber-myths about mental health to steer clear of as you navigate the net:
When it comes to mental health, we’re at the mercy of our biology.
While physiological factors such as genes and brain chemistry play a role in mental health, they don’t determine everything. Other factors impact us too, including life experiences such as trauma, hardship, and abuse. There is a danger to “an extreme biological approach to psychiatry,” warns Richard Bentall in The Guardian, because it can perpetuate the stigma that mentally ill people are somehow biologically defective. “We all carry some risk,” says Bentall, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool, whose research finds that childhood trauma can increase the risk of psychosis by approximately three-fold.
There’s no way to know what medicine will work for you.
It wasn’t long ago that doctors and patients had no choice but to use trial-and-error to see which medications would help an individual with a mental health condition. Yet with the rise over the last decade of pharmacogenomics—the science of how genes affect a person’s response to drugs—we now have ways to predetermine which medications will help and which will affect us adversely. The GeneSight Psychotropic laboratory test analyzes the way your body may respond to FDA-approved drugs, helping doctors choose the medicines and doses that align well with your genes with fewer side effects.
People with mental health problems just need to pull themselves out it.
The idea that people are lazy or weak if they can’t just “snap out” of a mental health condition is falsely stigmatizing. A positive mindset and a will to get better can of course help, but these need to come along with a complete recovery plan created with a doctor and other members of a medical and social support team.
Full recovery from mental illness is rare.
The experts tell a different story: People with mental health conditions do recover. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, “Recovery refers to the process in which people are able to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities.” All the scientific advancements, treatments, and services available today make it a more hopeful time than ever for people with mental illnesses to find their path toward getting better.
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