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PeerJ. 2015 Mar 31;3:e867. doi: 10.7717/peerj.867. eCollection 2015.

A questions-based investigation of consumer mental-health information.

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Converspeech LLC , Palo Alto, CA , USA.
Psychotherapist (LMFT) in Private Practice , Palo Alto, CA , USA.


Despite the wealth of mental-health information available online to consumers, research has shown that the mental-health information needs of consumers are not being met. This study contributes to that research by soliciting consumer questions directly, categorizing them, analyzing their form, and assessing the extent to which they can be answered from a trusted and vetted source of online information, namely the website of the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). As an alternative to surveys and analyses of online activity, this study shows how consumer questions provide new insight into what consumers do not know and how they express their information needs. The study crowdsourced 100 consumer questions through Amazon Inc.'s Mechanical Turk. Categorization of the questions shows broad agreement with earlier studies in terms of the content of consumer questions. It also suggests that consumers' grasp of mental health issues may be low compared to other health topics. The majority of the questions (74%) were simple in form, with the remainder being multi-part, multifaceted or narrative. Even simple-form questions could, however, have complex interpretations. Fifty four questions were submitted to the search box at the NIMH website. For 32 questions, no answer could be found in the top one to three documents returned. Inadequacies in the search and retrieval technology deployed at websites account for some of the failure to find answers. The nature of consumer questions in mental health also plays a role. A question that has a false presupposition is less likely to have an answer in trusted and vetted sources of information. Consumer questions are also expressed with a degree of specificity that makes the retrieval of relevant information difficult. The significance of this study is that it shows what an analysis of consumer mental-health questions can tell us about consumer information needs and it provides new insight into the difficulties facing consumers looking for answers to their questions in online resources.


Consumer health informatics; Consumer questions; Crowdsourcing; Information; Mental health; Question analysis

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