Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More
p> For many years, Mental Help Net has offered an online gathering place (in the form of forums and chat) for persons wanting to talk with other persons about mental illness and related subjects. For those that don’t know, forums are a way that people can trade messages back and forth to each other. Forum systems work like old style bulletin boards. You post a message to the board, and other people are able to reply to that message. Message exchanges on forums take place over hours and days, with people continuing to reply to messages for some time after they are posted. Because of this time delay, forum messages can be thought out and composed. Chat (unlike forums) is a way to exchange messages in real time (instantaneously). Multiple people log into a chat ‘room’ wherein, whatever anyone types becomes visible to the others in that ‘room’. The fast paced nature of chat lends itself to a ‘conversational’ style of communication. The speed and immediacy of chat also contribute to many users feeling that they are actually in the presence of others (which in a very real way – they are). Both forums and chat services are a popular feature of our site, with hundreds of messages being exchanged each day in the forums, and active chat occurring 24 hours per day.
p>Most people who visit our website looking for information of one type or another do not visit our community. That is a shame, because our community is a very special place. It is a good thing for us to provide information and education on troubling topics. But information alone is seldom comforting. People are the source of most comfort. It is thus a grand thing that we are able to provide a home on the net for all varieties of people to gather together for purposes of mutual comfort and support.
p>Exactly how an online community works is not an obvious thing to someone who has no real experience with such a thing. During my months as Director of Mental Help Net, I’ve learned first hand the virtues of our online community. If you’ll care to read on, I’ll share a couple of my observations with you.
p>First and most importantly, know that online communities are real communities (as real as any other community you may be or have been a part of in the past). Our community is filled with people, most all of whom are there to give and extend support to one another as each person copes with the stressful aspects of their lives. Like any real community of any size, our community is divided into ‘neighborhoods'; forums that address particular topics such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, anger and emotions, etc. The people who frequent our site have different worries, concerns and interests, and end up hanging out in the neighborhoods of our community that speak to their needs most strongly.
The members of our online community interact with one another in a more or less anonymous way. Since communication takes place through text, no one sees what anyone looks like. Because all members go by a ‘username’ of their choosing (which doesn’t have to have anything to do with the member’s actual name), the community members don’t know one another’s actual identities unless they decide to make this information public. Many of our members find the ability to remain private and more or less anonymous within our community as a liberating thing. Members use their anonymity to discuss issues and concerns they find difficult to talk about in the full light of day, face to face with other people who know who they are.
Our community is a community of peers. This is important. It can be embarrassing to talk about mental health problems with family and friends, and positively horrifying to talk about them with doctors or employers, or other persons of ‘authority’. The easiest people to talk about your concerns with are typically other people who have similar concerns. Seeking out a support group of other people living with similar problems to your own can be a time consuming and embarrassing task (even if it would ultimately be a rewarding one). It is good to know that a support community of peers who can really related to what you are going through is available to you right here and now, whenever you are wanting to share yourself with them.
Our community is also highly accessible and available. Most anyone with a computer, a recent browser and internet access can reach us and interact with the community. Because we are on the web we remain accessible from any internet enabled computer (in the event you travel). We are always open. Anyone is free to post a message in the forums or get onto our chat at any time of day. In this way our online community allows for almost instant gratification, in a way that traditional support groups and ‘real life’ communities cannot. If you have a panic attack at 3AM, you can write about it in our Anxiety forum at 3:15AM and with all likelihood, expect responses to your message by early morning.
Ultimately, I think, what is most important in making a community a good and safe place that you’d like to return to is that it is an accepting place – that you can join up with it and (over some time) become a welcomed member, a valued participant in a place where everyone knows you and misses you when you are not there. I’m happy to report that, for many participants, our community is just such a place. As custodian of the community, I frequently see new people posting tentative messages on the General forum asking, “how do I begin?”, “what do I say?”. Most always, such posts are met with a welcome and an admonition to just join in and start posting – adding your views and support to those who are clearly in need, and asking for support when you are in need.
p>I’m not exaggerating when I say these nice things about our online community. We are quite simply a good place to be if you are hurting. We’re not a perfect place, by any means. You’ll find some rudeness here and some bickering (just as you will find it most anywhere else you’ll look). By and large, however, you’ll find support. If you need a place to talk about mental illness, life stress, loneliness, or other issues related to being a hurting and confused human in need of the company of similar minded people you are welcome to join us right now if you are willing to take a chance on reaching out.
Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. (otherwise known as “DocMark”)
Director, Mental Help Net