Background: Over the past 2 decades, online forums for mental health support have emerged as an important tool for improving mental health and well-being. There has been important research that analyzes the content of forum posts, studies on how and why individuals engage with forums, and how extensively forums are used. However, we still lack insights into key questions on how they are experienced from the perspective of their users, especially those in rural and remote settings.
Objective: The aim of our study was to investigate the dynamics, benefits, and challenges of a generalized peer-to-peer mental health online forum from a user perspective; in particular, to better explore and understand user perspectives on connection, engagement, and support offered in such forums; information and advice they gained; and what issues they encountered. We studied experiences of the forums from the perspective of both people with lived experience of mental illness and people who care for people with mental illness.
Methods: To understand the experience of forum users, we devised a qualitative study utilizing semistructured interviews with 17 participants (12 women and 5 men). Data were transcribed, and a thematic analysis was undertaken.
Results: The study identified 3 key themes: participants experienced considerable social and geographical isolation, which the forums helped to address; participants sought out the forums to find a social connection that was lacking in their everyday lives; and participants used the forums to both find and provide information and practical advice.
Conclusions: The study suggests that online peer support provides a critical, ongoing role in providing social connection for people with a lived experience of mental ill-health and their carers, especially for those living in rural and remote areas. Forums may offer a way for individuals to develop their own understanding of recovery through reflecting on the recovery experiences and peer support shown by others and individuals enacting peer support themselves. Key to the success of this online forum was the availability of appropriate moderation, professional support, and advice.
Keywords: internet; mental disorders; mental health; mental health recovery; qualitative research; self-help groups; social stigma.
©Jennifer Smith-Merry, Gerard Goggin, Andrew Campbell, Kirsty McKenzie, Brad Ridout, Cherry Baylosis. Originally published in JMIR Mental Health (http://mental.jmir.org), 26.03.2019.