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Oct 17, 2014 07:40 PM EDT

Social Media as peer Support for Severe Mental Illness

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People with severe mental illness could turn to social media sites like YouTube for peer support, according to a recent study.

Researchers from Dartmouth College found that people with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder use a popular social media website like YouTube to provide and receive naturally occurring peer support.

"What we found most surprising about our findings was that people with severe mental illness were so open about their illness experiences on a public social media website like YouTube," said John Naslund, lead author of the study. "We saw that people with severe mental illness did not appear to be concerned about the risks of openly sharing their personal illness experiences because they really wanted to help others with similar mental health problems."

For the study, Naslund and his colleagues used a method called online ethnography to analyze more than 3,000 comments posted to 19 videos uploaded by individuals who self-identified as having schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder. They then used qualitative methods to analyze the comments and find common themes in the data.

They found that people with severe mental illness used YouTube to feel less alone and to find hope, to support and to defend each other, and to share personal stories and strategies for coping with day-to-day challenges. They also sought to learn from the experiences of others about using medications and seeking mental health care.

Severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder are among the leading causes of disability worldwide. These serious mental illnesses are also associated with a great deal of stigma and discrimination.

"What is also important is that our findings are consistent with how peer support is viewed in mental health research and practice, which suggests that YouTube or other social media websites might help to extend the reach of informal peer support activities between people with severe mental illness," Naslund said.

The research does have limitations, however, in that the work was exploratory.

"Therefore, it was not possible for us to determine whether YouTube can provide the benefits of peer support to a wider community of individuals with severe mental illness,"Naslund said.

The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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