Support groups provide emotional comfort, encouragement, and validation for those who share common issues and fears or have been through similar experiences. They also offer a safe and nonjudgmental space where people can share their stories, thoughts, and feelings.
Recently, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online support groups have become more prevalent. This article will look at how virtual support groups work and some of the best options for online support.
Through online support groups, members can share practical and helpful information relevant to their shared concerns and experiences. Peers monitor some support groups, whereas others may have trained mental health professionals leading the discussion. When professionals lead online support groups, they will not offer advice but may help guide the group’s conversation.
The mutual understanding support groups offer can help members better cope with difficult experiences. Individuals can also build coping strategies by learning how others have dealt with similar situations.
For individuals unable to meet in person, online support groups may have numerous benefits. A
The journal notes that other benefits may include:
- increased feelings of connection
- improved daily routines
- an increased likelihood of seeking professional help
- feeling an emotional release by sharing their stories and experiences
- feelings of validation
- feeling less reliant on loved ones
On the more practical side, online support groups are more accessible than in-person groups and available to the extended population.
Online support groups may not work for everyone, and there are some points for a person to consider. A
Others may also find unmoderated groups and chats distressing if the conversations move toward something that triggers a strong emotional response. The lack of a qualified medical professional or doctor being present may pose a risk if a person reaches a mental health crisis point.
There are two basic
Asynchronous online support groups
These groups do not have scheduled meeting times. Instead, members can share posts on message boards.
Synchronous online support groups
These groups meet at a certain time, at specified intervals, typically via an online video call platform, such as Zoom. Most commonly, they take place once per week and last for around 1–2 hours.
Synchronous online support groups might include participation rules. For example, a group may be open to those over 18 who are experiencing depression or grief.
These types of support groups usually follow a structured agenda directed by the peer or professional facilitator who leads the group. Each person can share and participate in the discussion as much or as little as they choose. The group facilitator will keep track of time and give a warning before the meeting is due to end.
All online support groups included in this list are recommended, established, or led by reputable mental health organizations or mental health professionals.
Please note that the writer of this article has not tried these services. All information presented is purely research-based and correct at the time of publishing.
These synchronous in-person groups are peer-led and meet weekly, every other week, or monthly. Some groups may meet online, depending on a person’s location. They meet the high quality standards defined by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an organization with more than 40 years of experience supporting individuals experiencing mental illness.
NAM Connection groups are free and open to any adult who has experienced a mental health condition.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s online support group is an asynchronous group with more than 60,000 members. People can share their experiences through a message board and find support from others in similar situations. Because the group doesn’t meet at scheduled times, members can use the platform at their convenience.
The group does not offer video meetings, although members could arrange face-to-face online gatherings with others they have met through the platform. There is no charge for joining this group.
As a consequence of COVID-19, many qualified therapists now offer online support group options for individuals experiencing depression, anxiety, and many other conditions. The biggest benefit is that mental health professionals lead the groups.
Costs for membership of these groups vary by therapist. Some offer the service free of charge. Health insurance may cover the fees in some cases, but an individual should contact their health insurer to confirm coverage.
A person may find the Psychology Today website a little difficult to navigate, and finding a group that suits their needs may take time.
Mental Health America (MHA) offers a free online community support group for individuals living with various mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. This group has over 26,000 members who share experiences and advice.
The organization also has a tool list that they say may help a person feel stronger and more hopeful.
Though the quality of the individual groups may vary, there are no costs to use the service.
These peer-led support groups cater to those living with depression and bipolar disorder and are free of charge. People can share their experiences, offer hope to one another, and discuss coping strategies.
There are also groups for the loved ones of people with mental illness.
Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about online support groups.
Are online support groups effective?
People participating in online support groups will have different experiences depending on the specific group they join and individual viewpoints, attitudes, and personalities.
However, members may find comfort in sharing their experiences with those who have experienced similar situations in these groups. They may also learn new coping strategies.
What types of online support groups are there?
There are online support groups designed for individuals living with various mental health conditions or in challenging situations. Individuals can visit MHA for a comprehensive list of support options.
How do online support groups differ from in-person support groups?
People experience in-person interactions differently than they do online interactions. For example, those in online groups might have difficulty interpreting other members’ body language and facial expressions.
However, online groups are undoubtedly more accessible than in-person groups. They also provide a safe space for sharing and learning from peers.
When might a person need to speak with a doctor?
Though helpful, online support groups should never replace services offered by trained mental health professionals for those with depression, anxiety, or other serious mental health conditions. Equally, if a person is in crisis, they should call 911 rather than seek online help.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.
The popularity of online support groups significantly increased with the onset of COVID-19. Some of these groups are peer-led whereas trained mental health professionals oversee others. The groups help individuals find empathic communities where they can share their stories and seek and give advice.
Groups meet via video call or communicate through forum messages. Costs for membership vary depending on the group, but many groups offer services for free.
Research suggests that online support groups may help alleviate symptoms of mental illnesses and complement in-person talking therapy sessions. Anecdotal evidence shows that support groups may also help diminish feelings of loneliness and isolation.