Online social support for those with similar health problems has undeniably provided comfort and reinforcement. But research on whether peer support actually aids clinical symptoms is limited, and the findings are mixed. New research doesn’t offer much additional scientific evidence that online support groups help.
Among people with mental illnesses, the results are even more sparse, even though research has shown that this group prefers online peer support groups over face-to-face support groups.
To fill the research void, Mark Salzer, Ph.D., chair of the Rehabilitation Department at Temple University, studied the effectiveness of online peer support for people with a mental illness.
The study is only the second randomized, controlled trial of Internet peer support — the first, also conducted by Salzer and colleagues, looked at its effectiveness among women newly diagnosed with breast cancer.
The study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, assessed the well-being of 300 participants with severe mental illnesses — including schizophrenia-spectrum, bipolar, and depressive disorders — who were assigned to an email listserv, a bulletin board online community, or a control group.
After a year, Salzer and his group found that participation in the online peer support groups did not have much of an effect on the patients’ well-being from a statistical standpoint; but there was evidence that participants assigned to the online peer support groups felt the groups were relevant, supportive, and beneficial.
“These groups likely provide some degree of comfort in sharing a similar experience,” said Salzer. “While we can’t yet quantify the benefit with our measurements, it does appear that participants benefit in online contacts with one another.”
Salzer noted that the lack of statistical evidence for the effectiveness of these groups shouldn’t deter doctors from allowing their patients to use them.
“If anything, clinicians should become more familiar with online groups because of their prevalence,” he said.
“They should be discussing their use with clients, and talking about ways to safely navigate online resources to get the maximum benefit.”
Source: Temple University