As I posted in my last blog, I believe that online support groups can be a real boon to someone with depression who is seeking peer support. They, by their very nature, overcome some of the barriers that keep people from seeking peer support offline, in the real world. However, there are still some barriers to overcome and caveats to keep in mind when using online support forums.
We have an expectation of privacy in a face-to-face support group. This is generally justified, and it isn’t easy for someone outside the group, like your employer for instance, to find out if you attended a group at any point, and there are rarely, if ever, any public transcripts of groups. However, this is not necessarily the case online.
Newsgroups, forum postings and even mailing lists are archived online, almost without exception. This can be positive in some situations, but when it comes to privacy, it poses a risk for the person who has posted something about their depression that they may regret when they realize an employer or potential employer, an opponent in a divorce or custody battle or anyone else who wants to dig up dirt on them has access to their writing with merely a diligent search. In most cases, this problem can be avoided by using a Yahoo or Hotmail email address when registering and choosing a username both for the email and for the forum that has no relation to their real name (“CalMom” instead of “DebGray”), for instance.
Lack of verbal and visual cues are often a detrimental aspect of virtual communication. Almost certainly, what causes problems most frequently is the inability to convey teasing or facetiousness adequately, other than adding an ? emoticon or “lol” to a written comment. Most depressives are very sensitive to real or imagined criticism. I have seen some epic battles start when someone misunderstood a written comment that would have been clearly understood in person or over the phone.
As long as you are communicating online with text-based methods, this deficiency will continue to be problematic. Just be aware of these potential problems, either as the person who is transmitting or the one who is receiving the message. Don’t jump to any conclusions about someone’s intended meaning if you are offended, and always to be ready to clarify your meaning if someone seems to have been offended by something you said. Do not take it personally in either case if there is a mis-communication. Step back and cool down.