The notion of being part of a community is an inherent feature of the human condition. Human beings are born into connection and cannot survive or function without ties of kinship. The communal structures we are part of define us, nurture us and offer us support. With the advent of an online world the notion of community has been expanded. No longer are we tied to a geographical or sociological context to define our ties of connection but communities can literally be formed across divides of culture, age, gender and space. Nowhere is the value of this experienced more keenly than in the formation of online communities focused on mental health. This article focuses on the resource of online mental health communities, clarifying and exploring the nature of these communities.
An online community can be understood as a virtual community whose member’s primary form of interaction is within the framework of the Internet. Membership of online communities generally requires some form of registration but is usually very open and inclusive. Online communities in the context of mental health offer a variety of services including the opportunity for support through for example chat rooms and e-mail correspondence and resources and advocacy for people dealing with common mental health issues. As such, they tend to be organised around a particular mental health issue such as anxiety, trauma or severe mental illness. They offer social connectedness and belonging for people with mental health issues who typically struggle with social isolation. Many of these communities also have a strong empowerment focus providing access to a wide range of resources. There are also a number of online mental health communities whose focus is not on mental health problems but rather on psychological growth and development having as their binding commonality a focus on a desire to grow in terms of skills such as mindfulness or self-awareness.
Let’s explore two examples of online mental health communities. Intervoice or the International hearing Voices Network is an online community for people who hear voices. Intervoice is a grassroots initiative and is a very visible and active community offering a forum for people to share their experiences as well as access to resources and relevant research. It is committed to spreading a hopeful and positive message for people who experience hearing voices. It offers a destigmatizing supportive approach to members and encourages members to accept and embrace their experience. As opposed to pathologizing hearing voices, the online community emphasizes empowerment and recovery.
Psych Central is a community offering self-help support groups in a range of categories incorporating the gamut of mental health and relationship issues. It also offers an online community focused on Neurological issues such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. The community is monitored by volunteers and overseen by a mental health professional. Community members are encouraged to remain anonymous by using a username other than the one they usually use online. It is an interactive, large and highly successful online community that also offers access to information, skills and expert advice.
Online mental health communities offer cost effective access to first level mental health resources and are accessible to people for instance in developing countries where these resources may not be readily available. They offer the free distribution of knowledge and skills regarding mental health issues. They also create possibilities for sustained support and containment for people suffering with mental health issues as well as possibilities for self-growth. Many of these online communities also serve an advocacy and innovation role. Online communities offer support, build bridges and create possibilities.
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