Yesterday, the American megastar Lady Gaga revealed to the world that she has post-traumatic stress disorder in relation to a rape she experienced at the age of 19. It is likely that this public disclosure will empower other trauma survivors to reach out and receive face-to-face psychological support and intervention. But many won’t come forward for professional help. They’ll go online instead.
Major events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11th and devastating disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have broadened the awareness of trauma and its consequences. And put it on the map, the world’s consciousness. With this new awareness has also come an explosion of web-based information, not all of it good.
In 2006, a group of researchers from Emory University conducted a content review of 80 websites that claimed to contain expert information on trauma. Using ratings based on published, well-established criteria, they found that 42% of these sites had inaccurate and sometimes harmful material, 82% didn’t provide a source of information, and 41% had no input from a mental-health professional in the creation of their content. Sad, but true. A more recent search indicates that the quality of on-line trauma information hasn’t gotten much better. As a trauma psychologist, the dissemination of inaccurate and unhelpful trauma information scares me. And it should scare you too.
A national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that at least one in three American adults have, at one time or another, searched the Internet looking for information about their own or a loved one’s health condition. It’s not unusual for traumatized individuals, their friends and family members to turn to the Internet for information as well. Not only does the Internet provide low cost and easy access, it also gets around the fear of stigmatization and common emotional trauma responses such as shame and guilt. But when that information is inadequate, wrong, or downright damaging, that’s a problem.
I’m all for freedom of expression and I understand that testimonials and personal information from other trauma survivors are important. But it is arguably more important that trauma survivors receive up to date, accurate, science-based information on things that can increase or decrease one’s risk of developing PTSD and other problems after being exposed to a traumatic event. And it is extremely helpful if that individual can use the information to determine if he or she needs professional assistance and where to go to for such help.
One problem with poor information is that people not only don’t get the help they need but instead may engage in unhelpful attempts to cope on their own, such as substance misuse or withdrawal, that will only cause them further suffering. As a psychologist who’s spent the last 20 years researching and treating the effects of trauma, I’ve all too often seen the harmful effects of bad information on my patients. I’ve treated hundreds of people who have been told, sometimes by well intentioned others, that they will “get over it.” But the truth is that once someone carries the heavy burden of hyperarousal, intrusion and re-experiencing symptoms for more than a few months, their distress will likely not remit without professional intervention.
I’m not sure what we can do about the distressing state of our online trauma information. The Emory researchers proposed that websites should be accompanied by ratings of accuracy so that people can judge the quality of the information they are viewing. But this could be seen as censorship and would likely require a tremendous amount of manpower and money to initiate and enforce. Another more feasible solution is for people to use a HONcode in their search term or download a plug in to their browser that checks for a HON code certificate.
Health on the Net Foundation is a non-governmental organization founded to encourage the dissemination of quality health information on the Internet. Websites can apply for HON certification and, if they receive it, this means their site met a minimum number of criteria to provide quality, objective and transparent health information to the general public and health providers.
For rape survivors and for all survivors, whether they suffer from intense re-experiencing symptoms as if the trauma is happening again, survivor guilt that they lived while others did not, emotional numbing, or feeling hyper-aroused and on guard all the time, the good news is there are effective treatments.
Although research consistently shows that there’s no one best treatment, no one-size-fits all, no magic bullet, there are several psychotherapies that can significantly reduce post-traumatic stress disorder. Treating PTSD isn’t easy, but it can be highly successful, and for a disorder which haunts up to 10% of the world, that’s something remarkable to celebrate and information which needs to be spread.
Originally published at medium.com