Psychological Testing: A reliable Form of Online Psychological Help?

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The range of options when it comes to online psychological help is very wide. From online psychological testing to support groups to professional therapy, the options are endless. One of the first steps that many people take in engaging with online psychological help is using available psychological online testing. Either out of curiosity or as a starting point to begin to understand and solve an issue a person is dealing with, psychological testing online often serves as the entry point to utilizing a range of other face-to-face or online psychological services. So let’s explore what’s out there: how can you start to make sense of the vast possibilities available for assessing mental health online?

A range of tests, quizzes and screening instruments are available online. Some are broad screening tests for mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder and PTSD. Others offer personality testing and still others offer to provide you with a comprehensive diagnosis of your marriage problems. Most are short and scored online and many are available free to the public.

But are these assessment tools valid and reliable. In other words do they measure what they actually say they will measure and would they be able to produce stable and consistent results? These are the kinds of questions psychologists ask when trying to evaluate an assessment tool. So for instance if I want to measure depression I would need to make sure that the scale I develop to measure depression is an adequate and consistent measure of depression. The development of assessment tools is actually a lengthy process taking hours of research and administration of the assessment to many individuals. So when evaluating assessment tools online it is probably a good idea to approach them with a good dose of scepticism.

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The best-case scenario for online psychological testing is where a website is employing a widely used assessment tool for the issue you want to understand. Here a tool that has been scientifically developed is merely being delivered in an online modality. Second best is where websites are using established psychological assessment testing that has some minor adaptations to an online setting. If the test seems to have been developed solely for the purposes of the particular website then approach the assessment and any results with caution. This is particularly so for sites that don’t provide a rationale or explanation for how the assessment was developed. There are some tests however that just have good “face” validity. In other words the test is either assessing a relatively simple concept or subjectively seems to measure what it says it going to measure. For instance, if a test for clinical depression is simply based on the current diagnostic criteria from DSM V, such a test clearly could serve as an adequate preliminary screening measure for clinical depression.

Online psychological tests, quizzes and screening tools are not diagnostic as such but may assist a person worried about a set of symptoms in getting access to information and developing the confidence to talk to a mental health professional about their problem. These kinds of screening quizzes and tests are often the first step for people seeking out the help they need. For many this allows for a space without stigma to explore their symptoms before moving on to a mental health professional and getting a valid and reliable diagnosis. This is how responsible sites that offer online psychological testing, quizzes and screening frame the services they offer. However if these screening sites serve as the last stop for people trying to understand their mental health concerns, they can be a highly inadequate and even dangerous form of online psychological help.

Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens and children within her areas of expertise.