Mental health chat rooms have become a widely accepted form of seeking support and guidance for mental health concerns. While these services are freely and widely available it is important to understand the parameters they work within and recognise the benefits and risks that come with these kinds of forums. This article provides an introduction to chat rooms, explores some of the risks and benefits associated with mental health chat rooms and offers some guidelines for effectively using them.
Mental health chat rooms serve as one option in the range of online resources available to service psychological needs. A chat room is a website or server space offering real-time conversations with other people who have “entered” the chat room. Most sites offering chat rooms have multiple chat rooms and these are usually organised around a specific topic. Users register a username and password they can then enter their preferred chat room. Once inside the chat room there is generally a list they can access indicating users that are currently online. Users communicate by typing text messages with other registered users currently in the chat room. In the mental health realm there are numerous chat rooms available for every mental health concern.
Most chat rooms provide guidelines for users, which includes a code of conduct, the purpose of the chat room and usually some kind of disclaimer emphasising the importance of seeking professional help when needed. While some chat rooms have moderators there are many that function without any moderation and rely on users to self-monitor and monitor other members. The administrators of chat rooms have varying roles in terms of the supervision and monitoring of dialogue within the chat room and may terminate or suspend access by members who do not adhere to the conduct guidelines.
Chat rooms offer the benefits of an anonymous, free, easily accessible resource that is available at the convenience of the user. They offer a potentially supportive forum where users can benefit from the experience and support of other participants. However they also come with many risks as, given the anonymity and lack of professional supervision of chat rooms, there is a real possibility of misuse of this kind of service. There are no guarantees on the content of dialogue in chat rooms and they may lose their focus and serve a social or even at times pathology reinforcing role as opposed to a therapeutic and constructive role. There is also a risk that other user’s comments may be inaccurate, intolerant, damaging and/or offensive. There is a risk of encountering individuals whose motives are not congruent with the express purposes of the chat room and who may pursue behaviours such as stalking.
So how can you make use of this kind of service in the safest and most beneficial way possible? Choose your chat room carefully by understanding clearly what you need from a chat room first. Then seek out a chat room that seems to be professionally run and has a good reputation. While lurking (hanging around in a chat room without contributing to the dialogue) is not good etiquette generally, it may be useful in the beginning to allow you to gauge how healthy the environment of the chat room is before entering into dialogue. Once you have chosen a chat room don’t disclose personal identifying information to the “strangers” you encounter in chat rooms. The bottom line is that you know absolutely nothing about who the people you are communicating with really are. Ensure that you are a responsible chat room user by being fair to other members by sticking to the guidelines of the chat room – be sensitive to the needs of other chat room members and ensure your own communication is respectful and responsible. Be an active and contributing member and report any inappropriate or offensive communication to the chat room administrator. If you are in extreme crisis or feeling suicidal don’t dump this on other users. Rather call a specialized suicide hotline and consult a mental health professional.