Bipolar disorder is complex. There are the main symptom categories of mania and depression, but each person’s experience is different. For example, some people suffer more from their depression while others find mania more damaging. Because of the variations on the disorder, it can be difficult to understand what you’re experiencing and why. Our primary source of information should be a psychiatrist, but appointments can be infrequent or prohibitively expensive. So, many people turn to the internet and, specifically, message boards or forums for information and support. While digital information and support are certainly valuable, there can also be downsides.
Here are some pros to using online communities as a resource for bipolar disorder:
- Bipolar disorder is not as common as other illnesses. Top estimates say only 4% of the population has any sort of bipolar spectrum disorder. Because of this, it can be hard to find support from people who really know what you’re going through. Online communities can provide that social support 24/7.
- Forums often have rules to provide a safe space. Moderators are charged with deleting anything abusive or overtly offensive. Posts with possible triggers are tagged and suicide threats or how-tos are often banned.
- It’s anonymous. There is still a stigma against mental illness which can make patients feel the need to hide their feelings and experiences. Online forums provide anonymity that helps people feel safe discussing what they may not feel comfortable with when face-to-face.
- Responses to posts tend to be encouraging and sympathetic, helping members to feel accepted and empowered. Sometimes responders are also able to convince posters to seek additional help and that it’s okay to tell their doctors and therapists what they’re experiencing.
Despite these benefits, there are also cons to utilizing online forums:
- Twenty-five percent of the U.S. population still does not have reliable internet access, especially those who are disabled, less-educated and low-income. These are demographics common in bipolar disorder. You can’t benefit from what you can’t access.
- Most members are not doctors, so inaccurate information can be spread despite the best efforts of moderators. Relying solely on replies to posts for information on bipolar disorder is unhelpful at best, especially considering the ample amount of reputable sources that can be found elsewhere. Just make sure to learn how to safely search the internet for accurate information.
- There is no such thing as true anonymity on the internet. Sure, there are rules on these boards about not posting personal information such as name, location, etc., but you’re still posting very intimate details about your life. If someone really wants to find you, they can.
- Even if someone in the community is a doctor, they are not yourdoctor. They do not know you. They do not know your medical history. Social support groups are an excellent complement to medical care, but should not replace it.
Image credit: Judy Robinson-Cox