Publication: How effective are internet support groups for people with depression and anxiety?

17 May 2016

Internet support groups covering health and well-being are popular: tens of millions of people or more use them around the world. Many focus on mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety. However, it is not clear if such groups are helpful for everyone. As part of his PhD at UCL, Jeremy Dean conducted a randomised controlled trial online to investigate.

Participants were either directed towards an existing online support group, or given an expressive writing task where the person writes about their thoughts and feelings, often upsetting ones, but without receiving any feedback. Both writing and the online support group involve the expression of upsetting thoughts and emotions. Jeremy’s supervisory team were Prof Chris Barker of UCL Clinical, Educational, and Health Psychology, and Dr Henry Potts of the UCL Institute of Health Informatics.

The study found that participants in both the online support group and those using expressive writing saw reduced psychological distress, but the effect was small and individuals typically recover over time anyway. There were no differences between the two intervention group. Those directed to the online support group usually did not then use it; participants did not feel the group was right for them.

Overall, evidence shows that online support groups work in some situations, but the group picked did not appear to help in this study. In order to work, online support groups have to be the right groups for the right people in the right context – they are not effective for everyone. We do not yet know how health services can best harness online support groups.

Dean J, Potts HWW, Barker C Direction to an Internet Support Group Compared with Online Expressive Writing for People with Depression and Anxiety: A Randomized Trial JMIR Ment Health 2016;3(2):e12 available online at

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