April 04, 2008

Continued: Online Support

“...two very distinguished therapists came up and told me that they’d been asking themselves whether they might have been able to provide ‘Jack’ with the same level of help and support he’d received from the self-helpers he found online. 

And they’d decided that although they are both well-trained, highly-respected therapists, neither could have helped him in such an immediate, compassionate, and practical way.” ~Tom Ferguson, M.D.

When writing about community---even cyber-community, my overactive imagination creates images of nostalgic neighborhoods with two-story houses, Victorian porches, hot pies cooling on window sills, children playing baseball on a picket-fenced lawn with the tinkle of ice cream trucks ringing across nearby pastures dotted with Guernsey cows grazing on daisies and sunflowers. Nice, eh? I realized how 'fuzzy' I can be about people and neighborhoods and communities after reading an article by Jenny Preece this morning.

"‘Online community’ means different things to different people." Jenny Preece writes. "For some it conjures warm, fuzzy, reassuring images of people chatting and helping each other. For other people it creates dark images of conspiracy, subversive behavior, purveyors of hate crimes and vigilantes. Some see a future in which physical communities are undermined or replaced by online communities."

So despite my proclivity for idealism, I prefer warm and fuzzy to dark and sinister. And as much as I value cyberfriends, the computer goes off when it's time for dinner. Oreo snacks can only last a girl so long. The following was excerpted from Shaping Communities by Jenny Preece:
1. Members have a shared goal, interest, need, or activity that provides the primary reason for belonging to the community
2. Members engage in repeated, active participation and there are often intense interactions, strong emotional ties and shared activities occurring between participants
3. Members have access to shared resources and there are policies for determining access to those resources
4. Reciprocity of information, support and services between members is important
5. There is a shared context of social conventions, language, and protocols
The following article by Oliver Lewis captures my sentiments about Online Community; sentiments repeated by others who also say cyberfriends facilitated the expression of painful emotions that were not validated in face-to-face relationships:

"The emotional potency of online groups can be extraordinary, and a number of participants say the groups saved or extended their lives. People absorb this potency in individual ways. “Often the intensity of the feelings engendered by the therapy occurring within the group would drive me from the computer for days at a time,” said a woman whose brother had been murdered. “At times I would just delete all the messages without reading them. There was never a wish to spend more time at it, though I was often comforted and reassured, as well as left weeping and destroyed by my own feelings, and in empathy with the feelings of other group members. I would come home from work, and stare at the computer for hours until I got up the courage to turn it on and read and share.”

A large amount of time grieving is not in itself a bad thing, according to Cendra Lynn, a psychologist in Ann Arbor and the founder-director of GriefNet.org. “The whole thing about ‘dwelling’ is a myth,” she said. “You have to go over your loss many times before you accept it. You can’t grieve too much.” Lynn says there is a marked difference between grief and depression, which is an emotional disorder and a medical issue.

Nevertheless, some forms of grief are healthier than others, says Tom Golden, a psychotherapist who founded Webhealing.com in early 1995. He draws a distinction between pain and what he calls “pain of pain—feeling bad about feeling bad.” Simple pain at a loss will eventually subside, but pain of pain can make an endless, unproductive loop.

Experts differ on whether a group without professional leadership can sort the good from the bad, but much of this debate is not new. “Some of the arguments I’ve heard being made against the use of online support groups are ones that were made by professionals against community self-help groups in the 1970’s,” says Ed Madara, the director of the American Self-Help Clearinghouse in Cedar Knolls, New Jersey. “Some see this as ‘the blind leading the blind'...”

...To those with a good deal of experience in online support groups, however, the issue of who and what is credible creates relatively few worries. In the first place, veterans say that false information is usually obvious, even to novices...Ferguson has even found that online support groups are ahead of the average doctor in disseminating both popular and technical information about diseases like cancer and AIDS. Online support groups, in other words, can often supply more and better information than doctors."

~Excerpted from Welcome to the CyberClub No One Wants to Join by Oliver Lewis


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