Moving online out of the firing line
How online forums can help meet the needs of young people in distress
The conference heard how online is the first place that young people turn to for support
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald with Elaine Geraghty of Reachout.com at the Technology for Wellbeing conference. Photograph: Maria O’Donoghue
‘We’re trying to change the conversation and demystify mental health so that small problems don’t become unmanageable as people get older,” says Elaine Geraghty, chief executive of the Irish division of international mental health support site, Reachout. com.
Geraghty was one of 10 speakers from Australia and Ireland charting developments in this new mental health support space at a recent conference on Technology for Wellbeing in Dublin. Bringing together support sites – Reachout.com, Turn2Me.org, spunout.ie, headsup.ie and drugs.ie – with organisations such as Mental Health Ireland, the National Office of Suicide Prevention, Aware and the Samaritans, the conference shared information about how best to help young people in distress who turn to the internet for support.
That the internet is the first port of call for many young people going through tough times is no longer in doubt.
Thousands of users visit the Irish site of reachout.com every week, and its sister site in Australia counted 1.4 million visitors in 2012.
The benefits to those living rurally or isolated was one of the reasons the original service was set up in Australia in 1997.
Reachout.com was launched in Ireland in 2009.
The biggest benefit of online forums, peer-based or professionally moderated support groups, online counselling and mobile phone apps (for relaxation, meditation, cognitive behaviour therapy, self-monitoring, etc) is that you can go on them anytime you like for as long as you like.
The biggest drawback is that you can also drop out any time you like and nobody will be any the wiser.
Eoin O’Shea from Turn2Me.org says people often seek online support before they go for professional help.
“Often people will use our site when they start thinking they have a mental health problem, as a precursor to offline help. Others will use it for out-of-hours support when there is no where else to go. And then, there are people who prefer to engage online.”
Turn2Me.org offers peer-to-peer forums, online support groups for depression and anxiety, one-to-one online counselling and a thought catcher mood tracking tool. Its latest development is to offer a structured eight-week online programme called Engage which uses all aspects of its service with follow-up recommendations at the end of the period.
Self-help online tools, apps and games for keeping fit – physically and mentally – are a huge growth area and the technology is already well advanced to support people via email, online chat or text support.
“The key will be to harness the potential of online technologies to help reduce the stigma around mental health and increase supports to manage stress, problem-solve and be resilient,” says Prof Margaret Barry from the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway.
One key question is how and when to moderate comments (before or after comment is posted or only when requested) to best help those in distress while not scaring others or, worse still, triggering harmful behaviour. Six to eight of the online organisations surveyed for the conference have moderating and crisis-response protocols.