Mental health disorders affect one in four people globally. That means for every 100 members in your community, 25 of them are experiencing mental health issues or have experienced them in the past.
Out of those who live with mental health issues, two-thirds will never seek the help of a health professional. Instead, many of them will turn to online community to seek understanding, connection, and support.
Whether we are aware of it or not, mental health plays a part in all of our communities. It also plays a part in all of our lives, somewhere in the background, whilst we juggle what we want to do that day with the demands placed on us.
Throughout my career, I have managed various types of communities, including those specifically for people with mental health conditions. There are differences between communities that focus on mental health and those that don’t, but there are far more similarities.
Understanding what mental health is and what mental health problems might look like (especially online) helps us keep our members safer and our communities more inclusive and supportive.
So, it’s not just mental health communities that need to consider mental health. It’s all of us involved in community management.
Let’s challenge some of the common assumptions we make about community and how we can reframe them to take better care of our members.
Mental health problems can affect the way you think, feel, and behave, so “just” registering for an online community can feel like a huge step forward.
On the Elefriends registration page and promotional materials, we actively say you can “post as often or as little as you like.” Members tell us that simply reading content is helpful—life-saving, even. This is particularly in times of crisis, when taking action might feel overwhelming.
In many communities, members who consume content are often called “lurkers,” and we often talk about how to “engage” them. But let’s flip that idea on its head:
In our quarterly community survey, one of the most consistent messages we get from members is that they absolutely know when they are “being moderated.”
Here’s how you can avoid that problem:
For example, we edited this real example:
“Posting about XYZ is a violation of the Community Guidelines. These rules are actively enforced, and repeatedly breaking them will result in your account being permanently suspended.”
Into something more like this:
“We are getting in touch to let you know that we spotted your post about XYZ, and wanted to remind you about the community guidelines here: LINK. These were created by members of the community, to help keep each other safe. Let us know if you have any questions, or if you have any ideas around how to make them better. We hope that you will continue participating in the forums.”
In group therapy, when members are planning to leave the group, they are encouraged to attend one last session to give their peers the chance to say goodbye. It’s easy to leave online communities, so we take for granted that leaving has no impact on others.
In a research project Elefriends did with the University of East London, we found that our members were worried when others would delete their profile or leave. “Every time I stumble across an account that has been deleted, I find myself worrying about what could have happened to that person. What if they are not okay?” members would say.
We join communities because we have a need. Many members leave after they get an answer and never return. Oftentimes, this is because we don’t offer ample opportunities for members to give help in return and we don’t consider that doing so would actually make them feel better.
When thinking about mental health in our communities, we have to strike a balance between taking and giving help. We’ve actually found that giving help can be extremely rewarding for members and can play a big part in rebuilding confidence:
When our members leave, it’s often a good thing. It means they’re managing their mental health without daily support from the community. We’re all human and the ups and downs of life will impact us all; turnover in your community does not mean that you are doing a bad job. In fact, it can often mean the opposite: your members are healing, learning, growing, and expanding their horizons.
It’s common for mental health communities to experience activity trends that indicate intense cycles of activity followed by none at all, as members dip in and out when they need support. Cyclical engagement is even more prevalent with specific types of mental health problems, like bipolar disorder, or with seasonal changes.
Mental health is a spectrum, and we all experience emotional overwhelm, where we might feel less inclined to contribute to our communities, no matter how engaged we are in the subject matter or purpose.
With marketing adages like the Rule of Seven that encourage us to follow up with members again and again, it can be tempting to try to re-engage members with repeated calls to action. In any community, there can be a lot of pressure to convert registrants to active participants. So, how can balance community engagement with members’ well-being?
In a previous role as a community manager for a software startup, we automated up to 30 emails, pop ups or nudges to customers depending on how they interacted with the software. This is common practice.
Feeling bombarded by automated messages is certainly not unique to those dealing with mental problems; for any of us experiencing daily emotional overwhelm, these nudges can feel invasive or even passive aggressive.
At Elefriends, we use in-person events to build stronger relationships between members. There’s no denying that something magic happens in-person that can’t always be replicated online.
But meeting in-person can be a big step for someone who is feeling anxious. Traveling to unfamiliar places and meeting new people can seem overwhelming.
That’s why a lot of people with mental health problems seek support online in the first place. It’s not just convenient to get answers and make friends online. It’s also emotionally safer for many people: it offers anonymity, a moderated environment, a low tolerance for trolling, and—when well-managed—a strongly supportive culture. Members have told us that “welcoming others can feel easier online as it’s faceless.”
Our members have shared lots of ideas around the challenges in crossing over from online to offline:
Self-disclosure seems to happen a lot more easily in mental health-focused communities than others. These communities have clear boundaries (members don’t disclose their locations, the community is private, and it’s a moderated space).
Disclosure happens more quickly when the rules are clear and members feel safe. Here’s how to create an environment that is more welcoming of self-disclosure:
A mental health problem can feel just as bad, or worse, than any other physical illness—only you cannot see it. Fears around mental health are often reinforced by the negative (and often unrealistic) way that people experiencing mental health problems are shown on TV, in films, and by the media. So, it’s easy to assume that it will be obvious if someone is struggling.
We might not realize it until community members are in crisis mode. So how can we ensure that we see early signs?
We’re all people who have feelings, both positive and negative. We all struggle at different times. We can also be there for one another and for our members during these times.
If communities are about trust and relationships, then make sure your community allows people to really be themselves. That means a space where people can be open, share problems, and ask for as well as give support.
Create an openly low tolerance for mental health stigma in your community and in the profession as a whole. In doing so, you will find that you have created an environment that allows your members to bring their whole selves — and creates a better world for us all.