IJERPH, Vol. 18, Pages 12743: Come for Information, Stay for Support: Harnessing the Power of Online Health Communities for Social Connectedness during the COVID-19 Pandemic (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health)
The COVID-19 pandemic created a globally shared stressor that saw a rise in the emphasis on mental and emotional wellbeing. However, historically, these topics were not openly discussed, leaving those struggling without professional support. One powerful tool to bridge the gap and facilitate connectedness during times of isolation is online health communities (OHCs). This study surveyed Health Union OHC members during the pandemic to determine the degree of COVID-19 concern, social isolation, and mental health distress they are facing, as well as to assess where they are receiving information about COVID-19 and what sources of support they desire. The survey was completed in six independent waves between March 2020 and April 2021, and garnered 10,177 total responses. In the United States, OHCs were utilized significantly more during peak lockdown times, and the desire for emotional and/or mental health support increased over time. Open-ended responses demonstrated a strong desire for connection and validation, which are quintessential characteristics of OHCs. Through active moderation utilizing trained moderators, OHCs can provide a powerful, intermediate and safe space where conversations about mental and emotional wellbeing can be normalized and those in need are encouraged to seek additional assistance from healthcare professionals if warranted.