Covid stifled US mental health therapy. Online forums provided a safe haven

Jessica Smith, who is 44, unemployed and lives on the US East coast, often visits the Mental Health Forum website, a peer support forum for people who face mental health issues. It has multiple areas where people can go to discuss their mental illnesses, share recovery stories and vent about the problems they are struggling with.

Smith – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – likes the sense of community it provides, especially since the long months of the coronavirus pandemic have disrupted her ability to meet people in person and have led to often long periods of isolation .

“When I have had dark thoughts or bad feelings and shared them here, I have received some wonderfully supportive and kind responses,” Smith said. “It means a lot, especially when you are sharing problems, thoughts, or experiences that you might not be able to share with other people in your real life, to be able to share and receive support confidentially here.”

Over the course of the pandemic, many people with mental health problems have turned to online communities for support.

In March 2020, when the pandemic forced Americans to stay indoors, many turned to the online universe as a way of reaching out and making contact to recreate the supportive communities they were now physically cut off from. People joined Facebook groups, subreddits, Discord channels and online forums so they could gather virtually without the worry of catching or spreading the virus.

In August 2020, a Facebook survey of 15,000 people found that 91% of respondents “have given some form of support to others through a group or community during the pandemic. 86% have said they received some form of support from others.” As of January, Reddit had over 100,000 active communities.

In February, the Govlab at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering conducted research on the impact of online Facebook communities. Its report found that membership in online communities created a strong sense of community despite the lack of face-to-face connection.

“There might not just be another person who has your experience living in your city or in your town,” said Dane Gambrell, an associate fellow at the Govlab. “But when people find each other online, they are able to connect and share their experiences and the common struggles that they face in really interesting ways that bring them a lot of benefits.”

Many of the online spaces that people frequented were groups that discussed mental health issues. According to Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization that promotes mental health, there has been a jump in people looking for help with anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

Significantly more people were taking health exams to identify mental disorders. “From January to September 2020, 315,220 people took the anxiety screen, a 93% increase over the 2019 total number of anxiety screens. 534,784 people took the depression screen, a 62% increase over the 2019 total number of depression screens,” Mental Health America reported.

Furthermore, according to MHA, “from April to September 2020, among people who screened with moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety or depression, 70% reported that one of the top three things contributing to their mental health concerns was loneliness or isolation”.

Jacob Patterson, a 24-year-old student, is among many who turned to online communities to combat the loneliness. “I like being able to share and express and communicate,” Patterson said. He often visits the subreddit r/depression, and said he liked the anonymity that Reddit provided.

Patterson added: “You can talk to people in real life if you are at an extreme level of comfort with them but not everyone has that sense of comfort. Being able to talk to people anonymously and just express everything to people who understand and know what you’re going through, definitely helps.”

Denise Hamilton uses Clubhouse, a social audio app, to talk to people in a group called Mental Health Matters. Hearing other people’s stories and struggles makes her feel less alone.

“When you feel overwhelmed or kind of mentally exhausted, which all of us have experienced over the course of this pandemic, it’s good to go into space and hear other people’s stories,” Hamilton said. “There is this beauty in community, especially around issues that are hard to talk about, mental illness is extremely hard to talk about. It’s really humbling to hear people’s stories and to hear what they are doing to overcome challenges they are experiencing.”

Even as things begin to open up, these online communities are not fading away. The subreddit that Patterson frequents, r/depression, now has more than 780,000 members. Mental Health Matters, the club that Hamilton listens in on, has 70,000 members.

“Most of us found each other when we were in lockdown. It provided us a certain purpose,” Hamilton said. “But it’s amazing to me how many people have stayed engaged even as things begin to open up, which shows me the power of digital spaces to create authentic intimacy.”

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