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Mental health support groups: A sense of interconnectedness

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People with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or other mental health issues may connect with one another via support groups. With technology, virtual support groups and discussion boards are connecting even more people and ultimately helping them manage symptoms.

“There’s a feeling of interconnectedness and that feeling that you’re not alone,” said Gabriela Cora, M.D., D.F.A.P.A., a medical director for Aetna Behavioral Health.

The effectiveness of online support groups

Online discussion boards and support groups can be more convenient for people, allowing them to connect to others on their own schedule across stateliness and even globally. Recent studies have also shown how effective they can be.

Researchers in a study published by the Public Library of Science examined the efficacy of internet-based support groups for reducing depressive symptoms. Participants used either an online support group for depression, an Internet Training Program for depression, a combination of the two or a control group that used a website with delayed access to internet support groups for six months.

There was no change in depressive symptoms for the participants in the control group. Participants in the online support group and the combined online discussion board and training program showed “significantly greater reduction in depressive symptoms” after six to 12 months.

Not a replacement for face-to-face meetings

Cora said she believes online support groups and discussion boards are popular because there is a sense of anonymity. While they can be effective, Cora said “nothing beats face-to-face meetings.” Instead, online support groups and discussion boards can be used to supplement face-to-face meetings, she added.

“When you participate in a virtual meeting, you’re just clicking in,” she said. “You’re missing out on a lot of social cues if you’re participating virtually. You may cry in silence if you are participating online whereas crying in a group setting may help all participants address the depth of sadness or despair in the here and now.

“In a face-to-face setting, it helps establish and develop relationships with other people.”

In-person meetings can be moderated by peers or professional clinicians and feature guided discussions. The goal, Cora said, is to have participants share their experiences and issues and work with each other to support each other and come up with potential solutions.

“Peer groups can be very helpful and they’re very powerful,” she said. “A person going to a group setting for the first time may feel alone or alienated. Having someone in the group help that person work through their issues can be powerful and healing.”