Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Online peer support for mental health problems in the United States: 2004–2010

D. C. DeAndreaa1 and J. C. Anthonya2 c1

a1 School of Communication, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

a2 Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA

Abstract

Background Help seeking for online peer and other social support in response to depression and other mental health problems offers an electronic technology alternative to traditional mental health care. Here, with nationally representative samples of adult community residents in the USA, we study online peer support help seeking, estimate its occurrence, and investigate depression and other suspected predictors and correlates, some of which might prove to be causal influences.

Method The data are from nationally representative probability sample surveys of the non-institutionalized US adult population, with a new independent sample assessed via confidential computerized self-assessment modules each year from 2004 to 2010, yielding estimates about online peer support. A total of 264 431 adults participated in these years.

Results An estimated three per 1000 adults (0.3%) seek online peer support for mental health problems each year (95% confidence interval 0.0022–0.0036). Individuals with depression and/or serious psychological distress are strongly over-represented among these adult online peer support help seekers (odds ratio >7, p < 0.001). Associations with college education, being non-Hispanic white, being female, and age are also noteworthy (p < 0.05).

Conclusions Online help seeking for mental health social support is becoming frequent enough for study in large sample national surveys, and might well be fostered by active neuropsychiatric ailments such as depression or other serious psychological distress. Open questions remain about whether the result is beneficial, or conditions required for efficacious online peer support, as might be disclosed in definitive evidence from randomized controlled trials.

(Received May 23 2012)

(Revised December 29 2012)

(Accepted January 11 2013)

(Online publication February 15 2013)

Key words

  • Internet self help;
  • major depression;
  • mental health treatment;
  • online discussion forums;
  • online social support;
  • serious psychological distress

Correspondence

c1 Address for correspondence: J. C. Anthony, Ph.D., B601 West Fee Hall, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA. (Email: janthony@msu.edu)

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