If you google the phrase “online support groups” you will find over 60 million hits. And you can find an online support group for everything from Abstinence to Zellweger Syndrome [yes, literally A to Z]. There are mutual help groups (peer to peer) and groups that are moderated by mental health professionals or trained volunteers. How to select from amongst them? First, we need to educate ourselves and then we need to educate our clients.
At times I have referred clients to online support groups. In order to make an informed referral I search for and review the groups. Questions I have asked as I am researching support groups:
How long has it been around? What do people say about it?
Who started it and who maintains it? Is it affiliated with a reputable mental health organization?
Is this peer-to-peer or is there a trained moderator?
What is the level of support/advice that is given?
How are ‘flamers’ dealt with?
Clients tell me they have found these groups to be helpful to them in a variety of ways. Some have told me the members of the support group understand their issues better than anyone else can. Research from an online suicide prevention community states, “Help-seekers…emphasised the importance of expressing their thoughts and feelings to a community who understood, suggesting the online community context created the opportunity for help-seekers to seek and receive social support they would not have otherwise..
We, as clinicians, ought not to simply refer to online support groups. It’s important for us to provide clients with information about how to make the best use of an online support community. For a good example on how to do this check out this article from PsychCentral – 7 tips for Making the Most of Online Support Groups. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/01/28/7-tips-for-making-the-most-of-online-support-groups/
It also behooves us to keep the dialogue open with our clients as they make use of these sites. In the latest issue of the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy there is an article on ‘Self-Injury Groups on Facebook’. The authors make excellent points about our role as counsellors when it comes to online support groups. They say, “…counsellors should ask questions about their clients’ involvement, including questions about the frequency with which they are using the site(s), their level of interaction (whether they are making posts or just observing), and the perceived benefits or downfalls of these interactions. Clinicians should assist their clients in becoming more mindful of the personal effects of their group involvement as well….Counsellors can aid clients in assessing how they are using these online relationships and how their involvement may impact recovery. Clinicians should promote awareness of the personal impact of group involvement and educate their clients about potentially damaging interactions on such sites.”
There’s a vast array of online support groups out there. Let’s keep ourselves informed and teach our clients how to use these tools wisely.
Dawn Schell, MA, CCC is an affiliate of Worldwide Therapy Online Inc. http://www.therapyonline.ca
 Greidanus, E. & Everall, R. D. (2010). Helper therapy in an online suicide prevention community. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 38 (2), 191 – 204.
 Niwa, K. & Mandrusiak, M. N. (2012). Self-Injury Groups on Facebook. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 46 (1), 1 – 20.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA