Support In Your Pajamas: The Benefits of Online Support Groups

Patient Expert

Online support groups offers the advantages of a support group in the comfort of your home. Deborah Gray explains how an online support group could help.

During one of our visits to California to see my family (when we still lived in Connecticut) my sister was talking about a couple she knew. She said to me, 'Oh, well you know Jerome, don't you?' I said, 'Nooo,' after mentally running through the list of people I had met on visits. She said, 'Well, he knows you. From The Well? You play online games together?'

'Oh, that Jerome,' I responded. 'Of course I know him. Nice guy.' Actually, despite knowing him for a few years, I had no idea what he looked like, although I could tell you what characters he played on our server in our online game. I think it's possible that from 3,000 miles away I had hung out with Jerome as much as my sister had in person.

We often take for granted, after years of being on the Internet, how incredible it is to know someone you've never met in person. In the past it was possible to communicate with someone who you had never met face-to-face by phone or letter, but how would you meet them? How could you find others to share your interests? And obviously, neither of the aforementioned communication methods would work for a large group of people.

Until the Internet, peer support groups (as opposed to traditional support groups led by a mental health professional) were the only group self-help support available. They usually meet once a week or so in a community center of some kind. They're often a grassroots organization started by someone with a need to talk to others with the same experience.

I know many people who don't know where they would be today without those groups. However, there are barriers for other people that keep them from participating. It might be a physical issue: geographic distance for those who live in rural areas, being homebound or not having access to transportation. It could be difficult or impossible for someone, working parents or a caregiver for instance, to fit the group meeting into their schedule.

The barrier may be, for people with a mental illness, a legitimate fear of being seen attending a meeting. If a teacher is known to attend a meeting for people with depression, might it affect how he or she is perceived at work by staff and parents?

Lack of convenience and flexibility are also factors in keeping people from attending in-person support groups. For someone with depression, having the energy to consistently attend a meeting outside their home is extremely difficult. And in many cases for someone with a mental illness, the group needs to be constantly available, not just once a week or so.

The most insurmountable barrier to attending an in-person support group for some people is shyness. For some it's just the prospect of meeting a new group of people that's daunting, but for some it's difficult, if not impossible, to talk to other people face-to-face about very personal issues. Many would prefer to just sit and listen till they're comfortable with these strangers, but in some groups everyone is expected to participate.

These barriers don't exist when one has access to the Internet and attends an online peer support group, or groups. Geographic distance is only an abstract concept and you never have to worry about bad weather when you're getting there. It is always possible to find an occupied support chat somewhere online if you need to talk to someone right away. The group meeting times are flexible and you can attend in your pajamas.

It's almost always possible to find a mode of communication online with support peers that suits you, since there are so many to choose from. There are email lists and bulletin boards, which allow for thoughtful, deliberate posting. There's real-time chat, which many people prefer for the immediacy and sense that they are in a room with other people. On my forum members can also have their own blog or online journal, in which they post their thoughts and feelings. Other members can comment on the often intensely personal entries.

The types of interactions you'll find in an online peer support group are pretty much the same as a face-to-face support group. Some people are seeking information about a disorder or its treatment, many people are giving or receiving emotional support and encouragement and some are venting frustrations about their condition or how it affects their life. Many people are just happy to talk to others who understand what they're going through.

Although online peer-to-peer support groups are not perfect (I'll discuss some of the drawbacks in my next blog) they do allow many people to connect with others to share thoughts and feelings about mental illness who would not otherwise do so. Although running a forum for people with depression that is so busy (200-300 posts per day) can be very tiring and time-consuming, I know that it's filling a need that could not be filled for many members in the real world.