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Understanding the Impacts of Online Mental Health Peer Support Forums: Realist Synthesis

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

Article numbere55750
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>9/05/2024
<mark>Journal</mark>JMIR Mental Health
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


BACKGROUND: Online forums are widely used for mental health peer support. However, evidence of their safety and effectiveness is mixed. Further research focused on articulating the contexts in which positive and negative impacts emerge from forum use is required to inform innovations in implementation.

OBJECTIVE: This study aimed to develop a realist program theory to explain the impacts of online mental health peer support forums on users.

METHODS: We conducted a realist synthesis of literature published between 2019 and 2023 and 18 stakeholder interviews with forum staff.

RESULTS: Synthesis of 102 evidence sources and 18 interviews produced an overarching program theory comprising 22 context-mechanism-outcome configurations. Findings indicate that users' perceptions of psychological safety and the personal relevance of forum content are foundational to ongoing engagement. Safe and active forums that provide convenient access to information and advice can lead to improvements in mental health self-efficacy. Within the context of welcoming and nonjudgmental communities, users may benefit from the opportunity to explore personal difficulties with peers, experience reduced isolation and normalization of mental health experiences, and engage in mutual encouragement. The program theory highlights the vital role of moderators in creating facilitative online spaces, stimulating community engagement, and limiting access to distressing content. A key challenge for organizations that host mental health forums lies in balancing forum openness and anonymity with the need to enforce rules, such as restrictions on what users can discuss, to promote community safety.

CONCLUSIONS: This is the first realist synthesis of online mental health peer support forums. The novel program theory highlights how successful implementation depends on establishing protocols for enhancing safety and strategies for maintaining user engagement to promote forum sustainability.

TRIAL REGISTRATION: PROSPERO CRD42022352528; https://www.crd.york.ac.uk/prospero/display_record.php?RecordID=352528.

Bibliographic note

©Paul Marshall, Millissa Booth, Matthew Coole, Lauren Fothergill, Zoe Glossop, Jade Haines, Andrew Harding, Rose Johnston, Steven Jones, Christopher Lodge, Karen Machin, Rachel Meacock, Kristi Nielson, Jo-Anne Puddephatt, Tamara Rakic, Paul Rayson, Heather Robinson, Jo Rycroft-Malone, Nick Shryane, Zoe Swithenbank, Sara Wise, Fiona Lobban. Originally published in JMIR Mental Health (https://mental.jmir.org), 09.05.2024.