Happy 25th anniversary, Psych Central! Today we take a trip down memory lane to when Psych Central was just a twinkle in Dr. John Grohol’s eye more than a quarter century ago. Join us for a great discussion on how Psych Central went from a hobby site to the largest independent mental health resource on the Internet — and where it will go from here. Click on the player below to listen now!
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Guest information for ‘John Grohol- Mental Health Resources’ Podcast Episode
John M. Grohol, Psy.D. is a pioneer in online mental health and psychology. Recognizing the educational and social potential of the Internet in 1995, Dr. Grohol has transformed the way people could access mental health and psychology resources online. Pre-dating the National Institute for Mental Health and mental health advocacy organizations, Dr. Grohol was the first to publish the diagnostic criteria for common mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. His leadership has helped to break down the barriers of stigma often associated with mental health concerns, bringing trusted resources and support communities to the Internet.
He has worked tirelessly as a patient advocate to improve the quality of information available for mental health patients, highlighting quality mental health resources, and building safe, private support communities and social networks in numerous health topics.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘John Grohol- Mental Health Resources’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of The Psych Central Podcast. Calling into the show today, we have Dr. John Grohol. Dr. Grohol is the editor in chief of PsychCentral.com and the man who founded Psych Central 25 years ago. John, welcome to the show.
Dr. John Grohol: Great to be with you today, Gabe. It’s an exciting achievement.
Gabe Howard: I’ve never done anything for 25 years. It’s incredibly impressive. And I want to start back twenty six years ago, twenty seven years ago before Psych Central existed. When you were coming up with the idea for this Web site, how did you get this idea?
Dr. John Grohol: So it all began when I was in grad school down in Florida and I had a bad first year in school because I learned about the death of my childhood best friend who took his own life. And that was a difficult thing to come to terms with because none of us saw the situation at the time that he was going through and he didn’t feel comfortable in reaching out to anyone. This was back in 1990 and I needed help, but I didn’t exactly know where to turn. One of the places I ended up turning to was a support group online, and that support group was on a section of the Internet we call Usenet, which hosts newsgroups. We call them newsgroups, they are actually just what we would today call like a discussion forum like Reddit or something or even Facebook, similar in the sense of these were groups set up to discuss specific topics. One of those topics was a depression group. And I just found it astounding, amazing that there was an online support group for depression in 1990.
Gabe Howard: And this is before the Internet was a household name.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, this, well, this predates the Web, and that’s why it’s hard to explain and hard to have people wrap their minds around it, because here we are 30 years later and to understand that people were doing online support, emotional support and information sharing thirty years ago. So these are not new phenomenon. So for people to sort of look at the Internet and say, oh, you know, it’s not real or you can’t have a real emotional connection with other people, I laugh at them because we’ve been, people have been having real emotional connections through Internet technologies for well over 30 years, actually goes back even further than that.
Gabe Howard: Yeah, I remember the old, like, bulletin board system days.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy too were the commercial services and they also had the equivalent of support groups in their respective services.
Gabe Howard: They did. I used to work for CompuServe serve, and that’s where I found the Internet. So it’s interesting. We’ve got a similar story so far with technology really helping us get through difficult times. And of course, I’m really sorry about the loss of your friend.
Dr. John Grohol: Thank you. It was a really difficult time in my life, and using that support group really helped me and it really helped me understand the power that such support groups held for people, if only they knew about them. The fact that I came upon it, it was only because I had some mad computer skills at the time. Computers were a hobby of mine. So I understood how to search for that type of group on Usenet. At the time, it was not a simple process and you had to be in academia. Back then, you had to be associated with the university as a student or a professor or something even to access that part of the Internet. So that got me thinking, well, if this helped me so much, and it’s helping other people as much as I can see that it is, wouldn’t it be great if more people knew about this? So I started collecting, I started indexing all these support groups that existed back in 1990 and 1991. And I published those indexes on those groups to let people know about other great emotional support and psychology groups that existed so people could find them and find each other.
Gabe Howard: And this was all before PsychCentral.com was a registered domain name.
Dr. John Grohol: Yep, yep.
Gabe Howard: And now here we are. So it’s obviously you did this for five years, which is not an insignificant amount of time. This wasn’t a whim for you. This was something that was a major part of your life for half a decade.
Dr. John Grohol: I was actually deeply involved in newsgroups back then because that was the modality that people used to have online discussions. There was no Reddit. There was no other way of doing that. Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s a thing called mailing lists that still exists today, too. And that’s where you get the online discussion, it comes right to your email box. And those remain widely used in many parts of the Internet.
Gabe Howard: So now we’re at 1995. Twenty five years ago.
Dr. John Grohol: So 1995, it looked like the Web was going to be the phenomena that turned out to be, and I said, well, this is a good place to publish a Web site and to put these indexes, to give them a home. To point people to a Web site and say, here you can go and find an online support group here. You can go and find a group about psychology or some related topic. And it’s so much easier than trying to publish these on newsgroups. So the first couple of years, there was no PsychCentral.com domain because domains back then were also pretty expensive. So what most people did is that they would use an Internet service provider’s domain and they would have lots of users, much like, if you remember, early Web sites allowed people to build their own Web site like GeoCities
Gabe Howard: Like GeoCities
Dr. John Grohol: So, yes, that’s the one. So you had your Web site and it hung off the GeoCities.com domain. That’s where Psych Central originally lived at first in upstate New York, where I did my internship. Eventually, I went out and spent the, I think it was like $50 or $60 a year to have a dot.com domain back then. So that’s a pretty significant investment. So I had to make sure that I was ready to make that commitment to PsychCentral.com. And it was perfectly OK before like 2002 to not like have your own domain. That was more of a corporate thing.
Gabe Howard: So here we are, we’ve now registered PsychCentral.com. What did this site look like when you made the leap from, you know, hanging off somebody else’s domain name? What sort of took place in these transitional years, these startup years?
Dr. John Grohol: Well, at first, it was more of a hobby site for me. I mean, it literally was a way of publishing these indexes and learning HTML and coding for the Internet and doing that and understanding how graphics worked and how. You had to do it all back then. There was no such career as a web developer. HTML was built to be simple and easily learned. And so anybody could create their own Web site. I taught many conference workshops about how a clinician, how therapists could build their own Web site, because it was that easy. And you can still do it today. You can build a very simple Web site using raw HTML coding directly from an application like notepad or word pad or something like that. So for the first couple of years, the Web site didn’t have a lot. It was maybe like a dozen pages and a bunch of those pages were the indexes of the support groups.
Gabe Howard: To put it in 2020 talk, it was basically just a list of links.
Dr. John Grohol: Yes, it was a list of links, because that’s. It’s hard to understand this, but Yahoo at the time in 1995 was the only search directory and Yahoo was just a list of links curated by human editors. And that’s what made it special. But back in 95, 96, 97, the Web was small enough that you could actually have humans go around looking for new Web sites to put into their directory. And so that’s basically what I was doing. I was doing a specialized directory of links for mental health, for psychology.
Gabe Howard: Did that have a blog on it? Were you writing articles back then? Or is this?
Dr. John Grohol: So that’s a good question about blogging, because I did start blogging and I believe it was 1999. And I wasn’t satisfied with any of the blogging software available at the time because it was all pretty rudimentary and didn’t quite do everything that I wanted it to do. And so I coded my own blog software to be become a blogger, and I coded that in Perl. And I maintained it for a couple of years until WordPress came around. And that was in the early 2000s.
Gabe Howard: When did PsychCentral.com start looking how it looks today? And I don’t mean design wise, I mean, you know, having all of the blogs, having the forums, having the news and all of the stuff that people have come to rely on today.
Dr. John Grohol: From 1995 to 2006, those first eleven years it grew bit by bit, piece by piece. I worked on it in my spare time. It was not my full time gig. I had other jobs working for other companies, helping them build mental health Web sites. I added pages here and there where I could, when I could, when I had the time. And it was kind of done, you know, randomly, haphazardly. I didn’t really have a clear vision for what I wanted it to be and become because I was doing this work for other companies. But I did see it that it had a good traffic profile, that it still continued to get a lot of traffic, despite it not being as big as some other Web sites out there or as in depth about different mental health issues. I also encouraged a lot of people to publish on the site if they had an article or if they wanted to tell their personal story about dealing with mental health issues or dealing with treatment and whatnot. So I published a lot of other people’s stories, other people’s writing on the site as well. In 2006, that’s when I decided I had enough of working for the man and different start ups and seeing all the ways that they were doing things wrong and spending money on things that didn’t matter. And I was so sick of seeing that. I was seeing, you know, millions of dollars just basically be wasted and poured down the drain. And so in 2006, I said, look, I can do this better. I can do this more thoughtfully. And I can do this independent of any industry influence, whether it be pharma, whether it be my own biases toward psychotherapy. I believe we can create a better mental health Web site that has information that we keep updated, that we add new stuff to, that we have a blog. 2006 was really the tipping point, the turning point for Psych Central, because I started focusing on it full time. It started paying my bills and it allowed me to hire my first couple of staffers.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after we hear from our sponsors.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back discussing the 25th anniversary of PsychCentral.com with founder Dr. John Grohol. Now, I know that Psych Central’s credo is to provide the best evidence based mental health and psychology information, regardless of profession. All voices are important and should be elevated in the discourse about mental illness and mental health. When did that credo come along?
Dr. John Grohol: The background for the credo comes from my seeing back in my graduate school days, my observing that the professions didn’t talk to each other. Psychiatrist didn’t talk to psychologists. Clinical social workers didn’t talk to a psychiatrists or psychologists. That each of these were their own individual silos in training and then in practice, in research and then trying to get those research results disseminated to clinicians. And there was no reason for it. We’re all trying to work on the same disorders. And I found it so frustrating because at the end of the day, all the mental health professionals and there’s, you know, five, six, seven, eight, nine different types of mental health professionals, they’re all doing the same kinds of things. They’re trying to help people grapple with difficult things in their lives, whether they be diagnosed mental illness or personality concerns or just coping with a life issue. And I saw no reason for this disconnect between the professions. It really annoyed me. And I talked to other colleagues and found, surprisingly, that they were open to the idea. That there is this desire to coordinate and communicate more between professions, but it just doesn’t happen. So from the onset of building Psych Central, I very strongly believed that we should be agnostic in our development and in our communications, the way we write content, the topics we focus on. We should try and be as objective as possible, as independent as possible.
Dr. John Grohol: And really just look at what does the research say? Does the research say therapy works best for this disorder? Or does the research say medications work best? Or some combination of the two? Or is there a third modality that you should consider? And I just put aside any professional biases as much as humanly possible and tried to create the content that reflects that belief in the credo. The last part of the credo is that it’s not a conversation just for professionals to be having among themselves. The most important part of the conversation is patients, our clients, and they need to be a part of the conversation. Their stories need to be heard. And from day one, I always believed that. And I try and I tried to create a platform where patient stories could also be a part of the conversation. And in my view, the most important part.
Gabe Howard: John, it’s interesting, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder back in 2003, and it was 2006, 2007 before I would say that I started to become a mental health advocate. And for years, I sort of bopped around in the siloed system that you speak of. I was a person with lived experience or I was a consumer, a peer, a patient. And when I met up with websites that wanted to talk about, you know, the research and the facts, they had no interest in my voice because they believed that my voice was opinion. And then I met up with you. And that was fantastic because you understood that the patient voice is relevant and the clinician voice is relevant and the caregiver voice is relevant and PsychCentral.com really has all of these voices coexisting in perfect harmony. So it’s no surprise that somebody like me ended up on Psych Central, because my only other choice would really to be on just a patient only Web site. And I, like you, feel that just leaves so much information out. And it also sort of makes us hostile to each other. Do you find that everybody coexists well, on PsychCentral.com?
Dr. John Grohol: You know, that’s the goal, that that is what we strive to be, what we strive for the site to reflect, that all of these voices are equal. I don’t know that, you know, we always are successful at doing that as well as we could, but we do try. And it is rooted firmly in the belief that the patient voice isn’t just one of many. I would argue it’s the most important. It’s the one that’s least heard and is often left out of the conversation altogether. And I find that just horrible, horrible bias in a lot of Web sites out there that they don’t include the patient voice or it’s sectioned off into its own special patient section. You know, here are the patient stories. I don’t believe in that. I believe that it should be as integral and as well integrated into the conversation as much as any other voice, because we’re talking about patient lives here. They need to be a part of the solution. They need to be a part of, an active part of their treatment, or in many cases, the treatment simply isn’t that effective.
Gabe Howard: Well, John, obviously you’re going to get no argument from me. I do want to commend you strongly for doing this, because I think that people who don’t live with mental illness don’t realize how often the patient voice is pushed down. So I was very surprised when I found Psych Central just as a user. It came up in a Google search. And I liked this because it forced me to learn about all sides. And I think that made me not only a better mental health advocate, but honestly, I think it allowed me to get better care. And I know that is a common thing that I hear running the podcast and doing the work that I do. So, of course, complete kudos to you.
Dr. John Grohol: Thank you. Thank you. But it’s not me. I have a hard time accepting such things because I do the platform and I do what we’ve created here with the help and support and standing on the shoulders of dozens of staffers like yourself. It wouldn’t be possible to have the great resources that we have on Psych Central without people like you, without people like our managing editor Sarah Newman, without all the other great editors and contributors that we have. It’s just they are all individually amazing people and they’ve helped, you know, make Psych Central what it is today. And of course, it would be nothing today if we weren’t able to actually speak to people in a way that they find useful. Because we have somewhere between six and seven million unique users every month. That also helps us do the kind of work that we’re trying to do.
Gabe Howard: John, we’ve talked about the past, we’ve talked about the present. What’s the future of Psych Central?
Dr. John Grohol: The future of Psych Central is always a question in my mind, because we’ve had a great 14 years as a full time ongoing concern. The online landscape over the past four or five years has definitely gotten a lot more difficult to navigate with Google and primarily Google, because that’s the search engine that everybody uses and their algorithm changes. A small digital publisher like Psych Central has a much more challenging time navigating these kinds of algorithm changes that don’t seem to make very much sense to us or to a lot of other health publishers. That’s definitely been a challenge for us. So in the future, I’d like to hope that Google continues to listen to small publishers like us and is aware that when they change the algorithm, and it can really hurt publishers that have been providing health information before they were even, before they were even a business, before they were even a company. I mean, we’ve been around before WebMD. We’ve been around long before Google. Part of the future of Psych Central is trying to maintain our leadership position as an independent mental health resource.
Dr. John Grohol: I think some of the ways that we can improve and do some awesome things in the space is, for instance, to put together a great app. We’ve done an app in the past, but it was more just a way of interacting with our Web site. And we’d like to do an app that is more intervention based and helps people wherever they are in their own mental health journey to try and become a better person, to try and cope better with those kinds of things that life is throwing at them, whether they’re mental health issues or relationship issues. And I see a lot of potential there. So that’s something that we’re looking to get started with this year and hopefully have something out within a year’s time or so. The future is, Tom Petty reminds us, is wide open. And I believe that we have still only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible to help people with mental health issues and concerns in their own daily lives.
Gabe Howard: Well, John, I can’t thank you enough for starting Psych Central, and I can’t thank you enough for being open to evolving. It wasn’t three years ago, actually on November 19, 2017, we aired the very first episode of The Psych Central Podcast where we had you as a guest telling us all about Psych Central. And I listen to that episode sometimes and it really just reminds me of how far we have come with the podcast in the last three years. And of course, thank you for being willing to invest in podcasting at a time when, well, frankly, most people were rolling their eyes and saying, everybody has a podcast.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, I mean, it’s just one of those things that we like to innovate. We like to see what kind of platforms, what kind of things people are interested in doing and trying to reach them wherever they are. I think that’s so important. If they’re into podcasting, why wouldn’t you have a platform? Why wouldn’t you have some podcasts to try and help people understand mental health better? Psychology better?
Gabe Howard: Well, I guarantee that every listener of this show could not agree with you more, John. This was great. You want to come back in say five years for the 30th anniversary of PsychCentral.com?
Dr. John Grohol: Gabe, I think that would be a great thing to look forward to, and I’m going to put it on my calendar.
Gabe Howard: Well, John, I agree, and it’s a date. All right, everybody, here’s what we need you to do. If you like the show, please subscribe. Please rank us. Review us. Use your words and tell people why you like us. Share us on social media. Send us in e-mails, mention us in support groups. If you’re at dinner with your mother and you’re bored, tell her all about The Psych Central Podcast. And remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling anytime, anywhere, simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. And we will see everybody next week.
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This article originally appeared on Psych Central as Podcast: Psych Central Turns 25 This Year.