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Honey, I need a shrink E-Mail this report to a friend

Anita Bora

"When is the right time to try and conceive? My husband and I have been trying to have a baby for the last three months. Could you advise?" - Ayesha. From a web posting in an advice column.

Are you desperate, lonely, or just been dumped? Did your lover betray you? Have you just discovered that your sweetheart is a cross dresser? Do you have the jitters about your first night? Are you finding it hard to cope with your problems and don't know where to go with them?

There's mom, but she would probably think you're losing your mind. And you definitely cannot ask your friends and risk being ridiculed. Don't despair, help is at hand. Best of all, in the wired age, it's mostly free.

Counselling and advice on every imaginable topic under the sun is available online. All you need are a few good URLs. And a problem, of course. Agony aunts and uncles are available a dime a dozen, all waiting to give you a shoulder to cry on. You can also maintain your anonymity, and get the advice for free.

Dr. Gloria Fraser, who is a relationship expert based in San Francisco, disagrees with the fact that people should expect advice for free: "I get an unbelievable number of letters in which people go into great detail about their personal issues and seem to expect free advice. It seems clear to me that my site shows I am doing counselling for a living, so why would I spend hours responding to requests for advice for free?"

However, besides Relationship Expert that Dr. Fraser maintains, there are also sites with panels of experts who offer free advice. Oxygen is an example, with a panel of experts on a range of topics from sexuality to fitness, nutrition and weight.

Go Ask Alice is another service offered by the Columbia University's Health Education Program, with sections on relationships, sexuality, sexual health, emotional health, fitness and nutrition, drugs and general health. This site is maintained by a team of health educators and health care providers and, according to figures quoted, its pages are accessed more than 2.5 million times a month by readers in over 60 countries.

Which adds to a lot of people with diverse problems. If you were expecting this information age to bring out a revolution in terms of awareness of issues related to an individual, you could be greatly mistaken. If it's one thing that stands out in the midst of it all, it is the fact that we are a largely ignorant generation with a lot of problems and misconceptions.

So can the Net help us increase awareness by playing the role of a personal guide and counsellor? Dr Fraser is of the view that online counselling cannot replaces face-to-face counselling. "It's a different experience to have face-to-face contact and to have an immediate feedback loop between therapist and counselee -- not just verbally, but facial expression, body posture, tone, etc."

Explaining why online counselling is just another way of getting advice and cannot be a seen as a substitute, Fraser continues: "Writing a description of the problem and then getting a new perspective from an online counsellor can open up ways of approaching the difficulty that was previously not considered. Those who have engaged with me generally seem to get new insights after a brief exchange. It is very exciting and gratifying. Some people do continue in their old patterns, but no one method is going to be effective with all people."

How much of this is really serious? How can one be sure that people are not misusing the services of an online counsellor because of the anonymity it offers, and get away with questions that are probably a waste of time? And what about oft-repeated questions like: "My boyfriend is in love with another woman, what should I do"?

Says Abigail Grotke, who maintains a site called Miss Abigail, that offers 'Time Warp Advice' on topics like love, dating, marriage, living together, housekeeping, home economics: "I get a lot of repetitive questions, such as 'I like this boy/girl but I don't know how to tell them' or 'How do I know if he likes me?' or 'Will I ever find true love?' Since the questions are basically very similar, I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job of covering the topics that are on people's minds, even if I can't answer each and every question."

Whether it is a profession as in Dr. Fraser's case, or a hobby, for Abigail, one thing is for sure. There are thousands of people out there who need advice. Says Abigail, "Since I do this as a hobby I cannot answer nearly as many questions as I receive. I've had thousands submitted I suppose, and have answered only about 150 on the website."

And are these questions from people who are seriously in trouble? Or surfers who just want to have some fun? "Most of my questions are teen angst questions, not terribly worthy of a visit to a professional," says Abigail. "I've had some sleazy questions over the years, but not many. They amuse me rather than offend."

The anonymity that the Net offers is probably one of the main reasons people head there for advice. But, according to Dr. Fraser, this can also be a disadvantage when one is looking for real help, when contact is essential: "I'd have to disagree that most people would prefer the Net. For some people, the contact is crucial, for others, the distance is more comfortable. That is why it is good to have a range of modalities available."

Another way to get things off your mind is by talking to people who are going through the same problems as you are, through message boards and forums. One notable sexuality forum, Ask Isadora, is hosted by sexologist and licensed relationship counsellor, Isadora Alman, and only registered members are allowed to participate. Other forums you can use to confess your troubles or find a friend are QueenDom, the community message boards on Women.com and the Sex and Romance Club on Yahoo.

Bottom line: We often need a shoulder to cry on. The next time you need one, there is someone you can talk to: someone who doesn't ask for your name. Or your credit card number either!

ADDITIONAL LINKS

Icleo
Experts answer your queries regarding sex and relationships on this Indian portal for women.

Underwire
Rhona Raskin, family therapist and clinical counsellor in Vancouver, B.C. answers questions on sex and relationships.

Ask Dr. Ruth
America's foremost sex therapist and author of Dr. Ruth's Encyclopaedia of Sex. Ask her your questions.

WWW Community
Allows women to reach out and find other women to connect with on similar interests and issues.

Love Advice
Advice on love and matters of the heart from Dr. Tracy Cabot, author of many best selling books.

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