Mutual-aid groups are important spaces for both carers and people living with mental health issues to meet up to discuss or offer support for their peers going through similar experiences. Traditionally, meetings are held in a safe place but there has been a growing movement online.
SMART Recovery Australia hosts free recovery meetings for people with addictions or other problem behaviours of concern behaviours. They currently hold over 250 meetings around the country with trained facilitators, however they realised that many people cannot attend due to living in rural areas, available hours, disability or even reluctance. Six months ago, SMART Recovery launched their online meetings to create access for all Australians.
WayAhead spoke to Michael Bellamy, Head of Digital at SMART Recovery on what is unique about their online meetings as other mental health-based organisations also host similar forums or group chats.
“We tried to replicate the face to face meetings as much as possible onto the online sphere. The online meetings are like a Skype call with video chatting, audio and messaging available. We encourage participants to use audio as much as possible and video chat if they are comfortable to do that,” explained Mr Bellamy.
“The meeting lasts for 90 minutes long – the same as face to face meetings and generally people do stay for the whole meeting. We do a check-in at the beginning to see how people are going, where are their motivations at, how are they dealing with their urges, their confidence levels and the facilitator will come up with an agenda based on what the participants bring up. It is mostly a group discussion moved by whatever they want to discuss.”
Online support groups and online forums have become increasingly popular as their key benefit is in creating access. However, there are also many other advantages from online meetings. The complete anonymity of the online sphere allows anyone – someone with a high-profile position, or from a small, closely-knit town – to stay anonymous. In fact, Mr Bellamy revealed that the male to female ratio of participants in face to face meetings is almost opposite that of online meetings.
“In face to face meetings, we found something interesting; 67% of attendees are males but online meetings are also the exact opposite where 67% of attendees are females. We thought this could be because females may feel more comfortable on the online space – which goes back to the accessibility issue,” he said.
However, at this current moment in time, online groups cannot replace face to face meetings because there are aspects which cannot be replicated online. For example, body language and non-verbal cues are generally absent and facial expressions are not easily read through the computer screen. However, in the fast-changing world, mental health organisations and providers have tried to keep up with engaging in communication.
Hugh K, a SMART Recovery facilitator for both face-to-face and online meetings shared his insights into the growth of online support groups.
“Regard it as inevitable. Australia is a big place and convenience is the modern way. However, there is a large online community in the US and I feel that more people engage in face to face meetings. Face to face gives a better opportunity for connectedness – which might not be where the world is headed. Since addictive behaviour seems to be typified by disconnectedness, while it is possible the online support community would continue to grow as large as face to face meetings in the future, I really hope it doesn’t,” he said.
Although, privacy is another concern for online users, Mr Bellamy confirms that all information confidential and email addresses are only kept to send out reminders, such as when the next online meeting is. Mental health online forums such as ReachOut, SANE Australia and headspace all encourage users to use a nickname or just their first names.
“You have to register with your first name and we ask participants to only use their initial for last name. Essentially, what happens in the [online] meetings stays in the meetings,” said Mr Bellamy.
By Cindee Duong