Internet anonymity reduces mental health stigma

Mental illness continues to carry a stigma that is as glaring as a neon sign, leading many young people to seek advice through the anonymity of the Internet, according to a recent study.

Diane Neal, Faculty of Information and Media Studies assistant professor, surveyed University of Western Ontario students as part of her study, “I did not realize so many options are available”: Cognitive authority, emerging adults, and e-mental health, published in Library & Information Science Research.

She found students preferred reading informational websites and using the search engine Google to find mental health resources. But the study also revealed significant roadblocks to getting accurate and reliable information to students online.

“We feel we can reach young people better in an online environment,” Neal says, noting the concerns about mental health stigma are erased with the anonymity of the Internet.

Approximately one in five Canadians will experience mental illness during their lifespan; these numbers are likely higher for people aged 18-25 years old.

For her study, part of larger ongoing research project conducted with an Australia researcher, Neal surveyed 1,308 Western students about their opinions of currently available e-mental health resources. The study asked students if they had searched for mental health information online in the past; which resources they used; and in what format they preferred to receive online information.

An overwhelming majority of Western students turned to Google first to search information about mental illness. But when they rated the resources they found, they didn’t score them very highly.

“The problem is the way people search for things on Google, sort-of naturally unless you are a librarian or something, it doesn’t really match up with finding the best resources,” she says.

For example, Googling “I hate myself” will not generate hits on the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) because CMHA uses clinical terms on its website, Neal explains. Searching more lay terms can pull websites that are biased, as corporations and drug companies have maximized their search engine optimization, or forum posts by people who do not offer reliable information.

Students also expressed ignorance about the various formats mental illness information is presented online, such as social networking profiles, online chats with psychologists and online games with helpful information built into the programs.

“Their responses to those different kinds of formats were, ‘We didn’t know they were available,’ which is where the title comes from because someone actually wrote that in their response,” she says.

The survey also turned the spotlight on Western and London by asking students about resources available locally. “A lot of people mentioned in the survey wished Western had these placed more prominently on the website so that they knew they were out there,” she says.

Some survey respondents, she adds, expressed concerns about the availability of appointments with psychological services on campus, as well as information about services available at Western being “buried” on the website.

What does this tell us about students seeking mental health information?

Research shows most people do not look past the first page of Google hits, she notes. That means the best information needs to be front-and-centre – likely using search engine optimization – in order to reach the highest number of students.

Also, the online resources need to be more effective and accessible, not just long lines of text written in technical language only understood by those working in the field. “If you are depressed, you don’t have the energy to wade through a bunch of stuff,” she says.

In order to reach a media-connected generation, this may mean developing new tools such as downloadable applications or videos.

Currently, researchers involved in the study are examining how to make the most of reliable online resources and optimize search engine results, which would be valuable information for non-profit groups and mental health community resources. This includes understanding the terms people use in their searches as well as the preferred formats, such as videos, games or applications.

“We are not saying online can completely replace the need to go see someone in person,” Neal says. “We believe online resources can help you get to professional resources if needed.”