Young people are increasingly going online to seek out web-based support for their mental health and wellbeing. Peer support forums are popular with this age group, with young individuals valuing the fact that they are available 24/7, providing a safe and anonymous space for exploration. Currently, little systematic evaluation of the helpfulness of such groups in providing support has been conducted.
This study examines the helpfulness of the support offered within web-based peer support forums for young people. It specifically investigates the self-reported user-ratings of helpfulness reported through the completion of a developing experience measure. The ratings are used to consider the further development of the measure and to reflect upon the overall helpfulness of the forums as indicated by the reported scores.
The study makes use of routinely collected practice-based outcome data from online mental health forums for young people. These forums are hosted by the UK based web-based therapy and support service, Kooth.com. A cross-sectional design has been employed to explore the outcomes that have been reported by those accessing the forums using a Peer Online Community Experience Measure (POCEM). To consider the helpfulness in general, a total of 23,443 completed POCEMs from the 2020 calendar year were used. A second dataset of 17,137 completed POCEMs from the same year was used to consider whether other indicators, such as the time of day of the post, had an impact upon the helpfulness rating.
Female users between the ages of 11 and 16 predominantly completed the POCEM. This is in keeping with the majority of those using the service. 74.6% of the scores on the POCEM indicated the individuals found the posts helpful, and there was some indication that males were more likely to report obtaining intrapersonal support, whilst females obtained interpersonal support. Further, the POCEM scores reflected the internal consistency of the measure and provided an insight into the way that young people made use of the peer support resource. For instance, posts were rated more helpful if individuals spent a longer time reading them, and the topics discussed changed throughout the day with more mental health issues being discussed later at night.
The results appear to demonstrate that overall, the young people involved in this study found web-based peer support helpful. They indicate that that peer support can provide an important strand of care within a supportive mental health ecosystem, particularly during time periods when in-person support is typically closed. However, caution is needed when interpreting the results of this study. Whilst such services are incredibly well used, they have received little research attention to date. As such, further investigation into what constitutes helpful and unhelpful peer support is needed.