Online support groups can be an incredible boon for people coping with all sorts of issues, from physical disabilities, to disease, to psychological trauma, to simply trying to figure out the next step in life. Online support groups offer a number of tangible benefits over traditional support groups, but there are downsides as well. Ultimately, whether online support groups are appropriate or not is dependent on the specific situation, but in nearly all cases there is no harm in joining a group or a number of groups to see if any positive change comes from membership.
The underlying premise of a support group is simply having a group of individuals who all share a trait or common history come together to discuss it and help each other in non-material ways. In some cases a support group may be facilitated by a professional, but generally the group is facilitated by a non-professional, or simply facilitated by the group itself, in which case it is generally referred to specifically as a self-help group.
Support groups offer different people different things, but many people join them for the feeling of catharsis they get from sharing their troubles with others who will understand them, and from having the opportunity to learn from others who may have already dealt with issues one is trying to address. This first type of group, in which catharsis is the main goal, generally is focused to people that have a more temporary condition, such as those who have recently lost a loved one. The second type of group, in which information is the main group, generally is focused on those who suffer from an ailment, or those who have a predisposition they find burdensome.
Because of the nature of support groups, often what one is going to receive support for is embarrassing. For this reason, many people find it difficult to go stand face to face with other people, who are most often strangers. In this case, online support groups offer an excellent opportunity for anonymity, which can be very attractive to those seeking help. Online support groups also remove geography as an impediment to finding those suffering from a similar condition, allowing people desiring a group for a more esoteric cause a chance to find help.
At the same time, there are some very real problems with online support groups. For one thing, finding a support group that is ideal can be quite difficult. Some online support groups contain misleading information, while others attract people who are there simply to stir up trouble. Some even attract those who are there under false pretenses, simply as a way to elicit sympathy from other members of the group, in what has been dubbed Munchhausen by Internet.
Still, good online support groups do exist, and they exist for virtually every condition under the sun. One thing to look for when sifting through online support groups is what is called high group cohesion, which is the degree to which the group has formed a community. This can be most easily seen in how long members stick around, with the best online support groups containing many members who have long since triumphed over whatever brought them to the group in the first place, but have stayed around to help others achieve what they were able to.