May 4, 2024

The Value of Online Peer Support Groups to Fight Loneliness, Depression, and Other Mental Health Conditions

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America is facing a new public health crisis — one that's impacting different groups across all ages. One in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness each year, with marginalized and discriminated-against communities more likely to suffer from loneliness, social isolation, depression, and other conditions. Online peer support provides these groups a safe space to discuss their issues, make friends over the internet, and embark on a road to recovery.

At Televeda, we provide free online peer support for veterans, Native Americans, the LGBTQ2+ community, women facing domestic and sexual violence, and seniors experiencing isolation.

Online Peer Support, Explained

A peer is someone with lived experience of mental illness or addiction who offers support, hope, and inspiration when people need it most. They might share their knowledge, provide practical assistance, teach skills, and connect others with resources and opportunities during and outside peer support meetings.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says:

"By sharing their own lived experience and practical guidance, peer support workers help people to develop their own goals, create strategies for self-empowerment, and take concrete steps towards building fulfilling, self-determined lives for themselves."

Peers are role models, mentors, advocates, and inspirational leaders. They draw from their lived experience to offer solutions to problems, helping people like you overcome their struggles and transform their lives.

Peer support groups traditionally took place in hospitals, clinics, schools, community centers, and religious institutions. However, online peer support provides a lifeline to those who cannot travel to one of these locations, perhaps because they live in a rural community or have limited mobility. The number of people who accessed online peer support multiple times a day appeared to double after March 2020 because of social restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For online peer groups to be successful, they need to respect the beliefs, values, and attitudes of people across different cultures. Peer support programs should also incorporate trauma-informed care that recognizes the widespread impact of trauma on an individual and understands different paths to recovery. Doing so can improve engagement and health outcomes.

Benefits of Online Peer Support

Online peer support is much more accessible than in-person support, allowing marginalized groups to get the help they need without traveling to a physical location. This model also offers anonymity, reducing the social stigma that often comes from discussing personal issues in a "real-life" setting.

In rural locations, it can be difficult for people to find peers with a similar lived experience. Virtual peer support overcomes this obstacle, providing mental health equity to everyone — regardless of where they live. For example, Native Americans in remote areas can access resources over the internet from people who understand their unique struggles.

Countless studies reveal the positive impact of online support groups on mental health. One paper suggests that peer support has become a valuable source of help for people in suicidal crisis by providing a type of "emotional first aid." That said, some are calling for more research into the effectiveness of these programs on suicide prevention.

Peer support programs currently suffer from a shortage of licensed clinicians and social workers. However, that provides lots of growth opportunities for the future as healthcare institutions, government departments, and religious institutions realize the benefits of this model.

Online Peer Support Examples

Veterans are one group that has access to a wide range of online peer support programs. Suicide in this community is a public health concern, with the veteran suicide rate 1.55 times higher than that of non-veteran adults. Research shows that veterans report a better experience with peer counseling than traditional psychotherapy alone.

Together With Veterans (TWV), supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, is a suicide prevention program for ex-service members living in rural communities that provides local access to role models and peers. Other initiatives for veterans include the Volunteers of America's ReST program, Vets4Warriors, and Objective Zero Foundation.

Native Americans in rural areas are another community that benefits from peer support. That's why we've developed new virtual talking circles and storytelling programs for this group, which are both culturally appropriate and based on traditional community-based healing interventions. Part of Televeda's Hero Story Project, these programs will support our HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ 2-Spirit services. We also offer in-person sessions at our talking circle garden.

We provide a safe space for our members across the country to share their stories, create bonds with like-minded people, and have their voices heard. Plus, we designed our online platform for everyone, including those with little or no technology experience.

Why Are Online Peer Support Groups So Valuable?

Online peer support provides accessibility and anonymity, allowing someone with lived experience to share their knowledge, skills, and coping mechanisms with others who suffer from loneliness, depression, and other conditions. This is just the beginning. We predict that virtual mental health peer support will continue to grow as more people understand its benefits.

Learn more about our free peer support and other initiatives by registering for free at https://live.televeda.com/.

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