Online Mental Health Support Groups: Are They Useful?
By: Beth McHugh 2008
These days pretty much every condition known to man has an online support group. There is really no better support than talking to people who understand and live your condition, whether it be diabetes, stroke or some form of mental illness.
There are many online support groups for a range of mental disorders including depression, the anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and panic disorder to name a few. While the concept of joining a group such as these is an excellent one, again, as with selecting a therapist, one needs to be a bit choosy.
Online mental health groups can provide daily contact with fellow sufferers, something that is often much needed by someone going through emotional distress. Group members understand most of the feelings that you feel. You do not have to explain yourself as you might do to so-called “normal” people, and you can be free to be yourself among fellow travelers.
But as with any group of people, you need to be cautious, particularly initially, about how much you reveal to people on these groups. I have had several clients who found that some of these groups did more harm than good. That is not to say I would discourage anyone from joining these groups. It is possible to derive a great deal of encouragement and strength from these groups, if you communicate with the right people.
There are two problems with online support groups. One is common to
speaking to anyone via text only, and the other is peculiar to mental
health groups alone.
The first one involves the fact that misunderstandings often occur when anyone communicates only through the written word. Most human interaction involves up to 80% body language. We are constantly honing our skills from a young age in consciously and unconsciously reading each other’s body language. In this way, a friend may call us “a complete bastard” and we know exactly by the tone of their voice coupled with their body language as to whether we should reply with a grin or a grimace.
The other problem with these groups that are specific to mental health groups is that, although you may join a discussion group on anxiety, you need to be aware of two things. Number one is that these groups are anonymous. There have been numerous incidences of people joining groups on anxiety, bipolar, depression, etc and they are fakes. That is, they do not have the condition but are purely there to cause mischief and mayhem. Unfortunately, the members who experience the end result of these shenanigans are wounded more than the average person as they are already sick and vulnerable to begin with.
The second problem with these groups is that we should remember that conditions such as anxiety and depression are common to other forms of mental illness as well, including schizo-affective disorder and personality disorders. You may be suffering from an anxiety disorder due to being in a traumatic road accident, for example, but apart from the associated anxiety you are essentially well balanced.
However, you may be conversing with someone who also suffers anxiety but has a disorder where they suffer numerous breaks from reality. It can take some time to tell which is which in an online group, and fragile members can be extremely hurt when a person who seems to be supportive and helpful suddenly comes out of the blue with harmful and hurtful statements.
We’ll continue this theme in coming blogs.