How Online Support Groups Can Help People with Mental Health Issues

Illustration of people connected to tabletThe Internet has revolutionized the way people communicate, establish relationships, and get data. It has also enabled people to get fast information about health conditions, and people are increasingly turning to message boards and blogs to research mental health issues and gain support from others. Some doctors have expressed concerns about this new approach creating cyberchondria—an Internet-induced version of self-diagnosis that increases anxiety about health conditions—but forums can serve as an excellent self-help resource that fill the void left by long waits between appointments with therapists and doctors.

The Benefits of Support
Support groups have been around for generations, and Internet-based forums serve as modern versions of the tried-and-true support group. People who get peer support have better health outcomes, whether they’re struggling with diabetes or depression. Twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have helped millions of people recover from addiction, and psychiatric hospitals often use group therapy to expedite and improve treatment.

People with mental health conditions often face an endless stream of judgment. They may feel like they’re little more than their diagnoses. Friends and family tend to grow frustrated with the symptoms of mental health issues, and treatment providers may be primarily focused on diagnosing the condition and getting the right medication. Message boards give people the opportunity to network with people who have faced the same obstacles, to share experiences, commiserate over health-care mishaps, and gain judgment-free support.

With so many message boards out there, people with mental health issues can choose one that meets their needs and that shares their values. The GoodTherapy.org Community Forum is one such board; it features threads pertaining to a wide variety of issues and treatment types.

The Online Disinhibition Effect
The online disinhibition effect is the tendency of people to abandon their reservations and anxieties when they use the Internet. Although this phenomenon contributes to behaviors such as cyber bullying and adopting new identities online, it can also help people speak honestly and openly about their conditions on message boards. The anonymity of the Internet allows users to share their feelings openly without fear of identification and other real-life consequences. For people struggling with relationship problems, severe symptoms, and frightening diagnoses, the ability to share openly can provide welcome relief.

Access to More Information
A mental health diagnosis can be a frustrating and unwelcome event, and every person handles it differently. Some people do wonderfully on their first medication, while others have to spend years in therapy and try 12 medications before they settle on something that works. Networking with others gives people a window into the continuum of experiences, and arms them with helpful information. A person struggling with depression, for example, might find the side effects of his or her medication intolerable until the person reads online that side effects tend to get better in a few weeks. Seeing people overcome their worst symptoms and make progress with therapy and medication can serve as a powerful incentive to keep trying.

Decreased Stigma
Mental health issues don’t have visible markers. Even highly successful, widely loved people can experience serious mental health conditions. The anonymity of forums allows them to share their experiences without concerns about how doing so might affect their careers or reputations. When these experiences are shared, they become a lot less scary. This can help to decrease the stigma associated with mental health conditions, and may even encourage people who are on the fence about treatment to seek help.

References:

  1. Johnsen, J. K., Rosenvinge, J. H., & Gammon, D. (2002). Online group interaction and mental health: An analysis of three online discussion forums. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology43(5), 445-449. doi: 10.1111/1467-9450.00313
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2012, August 01). Support groups: Make connections, get help. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/support-groups/MH00002
  3. Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. CyberPsychology and Behavior7(3), 321-326. doi: 10.1089/1094931041291295

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  • sammie

    sammie

    April 13th, 2013 at 4:17 AM

    I agree with everything that is stated here! But I do think that the point about people abandoning their reservations about treatment when online goes a very long way in securing treatment for them. People are less inhibited when online, so in a support group like this, whereas in person someone could be very hesitant about what they share, the internet allows you just enough anonymity to feel okay with sharing your issues and concerns. This could help so many people who need support and help get the attention that they need in a situation that may not feel as threatening to them as face to face therapy could. It is awesome that there are so many options for treatment now that was not once available.

  • Marcus D

    Marcus D

    April 15th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    It is the access to more and more information that can be so critical to many mental health patients. There was a time not too long ago that to even admit that you were a mental health patient would have meant a shunning, no one wanted to talk about it because for most people it is far outside of their normal comfort zone. In many cases people lost even their jobs due to a lack of understanding. But having groups for support online have opened up a whole new world of opportunities for those who are seeking help and need someone to talk to who can understand exactly what they are going through. I would hope that the use of support groups online could also lead to many seeking even more complete treatment options, but this is certainly a great start for many.

  • Dermot

    Dermot

    April 15th, 2013 at 1:08 PM

    I know the value of having an outlet in times of need!

    When things are going wrong and there is no one to turn to it can push you into a abyss and thoughts of suicide are not so far away.

    A friend, a family member, even a stranger thousands of miles away, someone to listen you, oh what a relief that can be!

    Having been down this road with depression, I can and will always vouch for online forums and support groups. Cheers to technology for it has saved many a life through groups like these!

  • CJ

    CJ

    June 15th, 2015 at 6:11 PM

    I know how alone you can feel in the middle of any mental health situation. You want to reach out to help from friends or family, but they can’t always be there for you. Sometimes you just need someone to listen. I wanted to share this resource called 7 Cups of Tea that is full of people who want to listen. If you just need to feel heard, try this website 7cupsoftea.com

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