Today, people use the Internet to do everything from buying groceries to taking classes. With chat rooms and email, it is possible to connect with friends, family and even strangers from anywhere in the world. As the Internet expands and subsequently makes the world a smaller place, people with medical and mental health questions also look to their computers for answers.

Online support groups are growing. Following the popularity of MySpace and Facebook, social networking sites are springing up all over the World Wide Web, beckoning people of all ages to discuss their most personal issues. With anonymity for personal security, people gather at any time in virtual sanctuaries where encouragement and advice are a click away.

One such website is Created by two men with no formal medical training, is simplistic in its approach to online support groups. It allows people to sign up with usernames and join message boards on a wide range of issues. In some groups, members discuss common life experiences such as breastfeeding or bereavement. Others cover serious disorders like bulimia nervosa and occupational illnesses like asbestosis. Members can also email each other privately and anonymously.

In a 2007 interview, co-founder Roy Levy said, “In my eyes, one of the big advantages of online support groups is the participation of people from rural areas where ‘offline’ support groups are harder to find.”

The professional medical community is taking advantage of this new wave of technology as well. Many health websites have community message boards and chat rooms to connect people with like illnesses for advice and emotional support. WebMD has thriving message boards where users share information about everything from back pain to fibromyalgia.

Many websites have disclaimers stating that the advice given by online community members is for informational purposes only. So, exercise caution when discussing your illness on the web. Jamie Becker, the LHSFNA’s Associate Director of Health Promotion, states, “There are safety issues for the layman-lead group. You can have amateurs giving misinformation.”

Research any medical advice given over the Internet and talk about your concerns with your doctor. Online support groups should never take the place of an examination and diagnosis from a primary care physician and/or a licensed therapist.

“Keep the communication lines open offline as well,” Becker adds. “It is important to maintain relationships with co-workers, friends and family.”

If used wisely, online support groups can provide an additional place to talk with others who share your struggles. You are not alone in the problems that you face and a community of like-minded individuals can help. You can also find more information on mental health issues by visiting our Mental Health Information and Resources page.

[Jennifer E. Jones]