WebMD (www.webmd.com) and MayoClinic.com (www.mayoclinic.com) have generated the largest number of users online. But these sites are like primary care physicians that handle all medical issues. Psych Central (www.psychcentral.com) serves as a specialist that provides the latest news on psychological disorders, treatments, and medications and offers a dozen blogs to discuss it all. Moreover, it helps users identify a therapist and offers ample opportunities to chat about social anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorders (ADD), eating disorders, and depression.
Psych Central is "WebMD for mental health. We focus on issues that deal with handling mental disorders such as communication and positive psychology that can improve a person's life," explains John Grohol, a clinical psychologist and founder of Psych Central. For example, someone with schizophrenia can learn about the disorder and attend online sessions with support groups. Family members of people with schizophrenia or other disorders also use the site.
Grohol was working in online support groups in 1992 and saw that the internet was here to stay. He started Psych Central in 1995 as a clearinghouse for mental health information and gradually turned it into a multifaceted resource about psychological trouble spots.
Psych Central is organized into Conditions and Disorders, Ask, Drugs, News, Resources, Chats, and Rare Disorders with links to other major psychological sites. Users can also explore specific conditions such as alcoholism, sexual and eating disorders, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In addition, the site offers referrals, enabling users to put in their ZIP codes and find therapists in their area. Recent articles, which are written by mental health professionals or journalists, focus on topics such as how therapy can help control a teen's weight and the latest research into what causes Alzheimer's.
Psych Central reaches close to 1 million unique visitors a month and attracts an audience of 60% women and 40% men. More than 68% of its audience is 49-years old and younger, so it attracts people in their 20s or 30s who are seeking help.
Grohol, who is based in Newburyport, Mass., says that what drives users to the site is "people are looking for mental health assistance such as with depression or ADD and are interested in taking quizzes to determine whether someone should talk to a professional." If a person is feeling depressive, the user can learn about the symptoms, find ways to prevent it, consider treatment options, and learn where to get additional information. In the Drugs section, readers can learn which medications are most often prescribed and discover any side effects.
Psych Central is free for all of its services including its membership section, which provides access to certain support groups. The site is independently owned by Grohol, has a staff of a dozen people, and generates revenue through online advertisements. Psych Central builds an audience through word of mouth and press interviews by Grohol, but it has a limited marketing budget. "We're a goldfish in the internet lake," he quips.
The site contains a dozen blogs written by mental health professionals and journalists such as Christine Stapleton, a Palm Beach Post writer, who discusses her depression; Elisha Goldstein, an expert on mindfulness; Candida Fink and Joe Kraynak who specialize in bipolar disorder; and Laura L. Smith on anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
A recent blog posting by Erika Krull, an expert in family therapy, discussed her subjective take on blended families and noted that 60% of remarriages end up in divorce. She says remarriage is much more likely to succeed for empty nesters than for people with existing families. Her blog posting lacked recommendations of how to make a blended family work.
Encouraging interactive involvement with its users is a main feature of the site. People can enter chat rooms and discuss their personal psychological situation and learn what has worked or doesn't work with depression or social anxieties from other people.
"We try to engage people in many ways. If they're seeking more information about a disorder, they can join a support group of bipolar sufferers or enter a chat room," Grohol says.
Most articles don't break new ground into psychological or mental health research but, instead, place existing research into context. There are several articles debunking internet addiction, which its writers claim doesn't really exist. Articles such as Therese J. Borchard's "5 Tips for Eating Healthy Through the Holidays" seem more appropriate for Woman's Day than a psychological website. Another news update by Rick Nauert on "Increased Antidepressant Risk in Older Women" was more informative in explaining the risks of medication.
Kelly Stone, a licensed mental health counselor in Lawrenceville, Ga., said, "The question/answer part under Ask a Therapist looks like a good resource for people who might benefit from counseling but are having reticence about doing so."
Psych Central has boundaries that it won't cross. "We don't do therapy directly on the website but provide a conduit to connect with a therapist offline," Grohol says.
Grohol no longer practices psychology but is devoted full time to running Psych Central. His satisfaction stems from "reducing the stigma of mental disorder." He adds, "If people obtain the right treatment, most mental disorders can be overcome."
Most of all, Psych Central operates as a safe haven for people to learn more about psychological issues, gain advice from experts, and share concerns with people facing the same issues. "It operates as a large support group where people can talk about emotional issues" and creates a community of people, Grohol notes.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.