With the exploding growth of the Internet, more and more people are going on-line. Mental health professionals are finding discussion groups filled with like-minded researchers and practitioners in every aspect of the field. Laypeople are discovering the value and enrichment that mutual self-help support groups and educational materials lend to their treatment. It is important, if not invaluable, to become familiar with this new world of opportunity and to learn about what's currently available and what's coming in future years.
Professionals getting on-line today will benefit from increased communication with their colleagues around the world, ease of professional collaboration, access to a wide range of useful information previously found only in libraries or in books and the opportunity to participate in continuing education courses.
The Internet is composed of a number of distinct parts. Acquiring an understanding of these parts may be helpful to those who are ready to explore the opportunities on-line. The World Wide Web is the fastest growing part of the "Net," largely because it allows people to quickly and easily display information and images that are then accessible by anyone in the world. A web site is an individual's or corporation's place on the web. A site is typically made up of dozens to sometimes hundreds of separate "pages." If you think of the web as one global library and each site as an individual book, you will have a basic understanding of the web's organization.
Mailing lists, or "listservs," however, are the preferred way of carrying on a discussion with hundreds or thousands of people throughout the world, since lists are available via electronic mail (e-mail). Newsgroups are more public general discussion areas that allow for threaded discussions. (Threading makes a discussion easier to follow, because discussions are chronologically organized by subject.) Mailing lists and newsgroups are topic-oriented, i.e., organized according to specific subject areas. Because newsgroups are more public, they attract many people who aren't interested in staying "on topic" in the discussion. Consequently, several professionals find that newsgroups attract too many irrelevant discussions to be worth their time. Mailing lists are more popular among professionals.
There are two traditional ways to explore the web: search engines and guides. Similar to a library's card catalog, a search engine provides a complete index of everything it has found. Unfortunately, search engines aren't very "smart" right now and will return much more information than most people want. More intelligent and controlled search engines will be available shortly, which may improve their usefulness. Alta Vista, Lycos and OpenText Index are examples of some popular search engines.
Guides, on the other hand, do not rely on software to do their cataloging; it's all done by hand by a human or a group of human editors. Because of this editing, guides tend to offer more useful and organized information. Yahoo is one of the most popular guides for general information; Infoseek is another widely recognized general-purpose guide. Mental Health Net is one of the largest such guides for mental health, psychiatric and psychological information. The drawback to these guides is that they tend not to be as large or as comprehensive as search engines. Guides are a great place to start your search for information. Then, if you haven't found the specific information you are looking for, it's worth going to one of the more general search engines.