Internet support groups (ISGs) are a popular means by which consumers with depression communicate online. A number of studies have evaluated the nature and impact of depression-specific ISGs. However, to date there have been no published systematic reviews of this evidence.
The aim was to systematically identify and summarize the available evidence concerning the scope and findings of studies of depression ISGs.
Three databases (PubMed, PsycINFO, Cochrane) were searched using over 150 search terms extracted from relevant papers, abstracts, and a thesaurus. Papers were included if they employed an online peer-to-peer depression-specific support group and reported either quantitative or qualitative empirical data. The objective of each study was coded according to a 20-category classification system, which included the effect on depression and other outcomes, including help seeking; user characteristics, activity, satisfaction, perceived benefits, perceived disadvantages; the reason for using the ISG; the nature of ISG posts; characteristics of depression ISGs compared to other ISG types, face-to-face groups, and face-to-face counseling; ISG structure and longitudinal changes; and predictors of ISG adherence.
Thirteen papers satisfied the inclusion criteria from an initial pool of 12,692 abstracts. Of these, three collected data using survey questionnaires, nine analyzed samples of posts, and one both collected survey data and analyzed a sample of posts. The quality of most studies was not high, and little data were collected on most key aspects of depression ISGs. The most common objective of the studies was to analyze the nature of the posts (eight studies) and to describe site usage (six studies) and user characteristics (five studies). The most prevalent types of social support were emotional, informational, and social companionship.
Given the popularity of depression ISGs and the paucity of available evidence about them, there is a need for high-quality, systematic studies of these groups, their impact, and the characteristics of their members and users. Such information is required to inform decision making by consumers, provider and educational organizations, guideline developers, policy makers, and funding bodies considering using, recommending, providing, or funding such groups.
Keywords: Depression, consumer participation, Internet, self-help groups