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Online communities are proving to be incredibly effective at bringing together people of similar interests – even those who face social stigma and isolation.
This has been the experience of SANE Australia, a charitable organisation serving Australians affected by mental illness. SANE has been using online community technology from US-based supplier, Lithium, for the past seven months to power two forums for people either living with mental illness or caring for those who are.
SANE’s chief executive officer, Jack Heath, says the online communities augment existing services such as help lines, which already assist more than 10,000 people each year. More than one million Australians encounter a recognised mental illness every year, and about two thirds are not seeking help.
“We wanted to be able to get out to people that we previously had not been able to connect with,” Heath tells CMO. “We wanted to provide an anonymous environment so they can have a look and not have to declare themselves, and when they feel comfortable about participating in the conversation they can join in.”
While debate has raged online about the dangers posed by anonymous forums, Heath believes there are many people who feel more comfortable participating in an anonymous online community than revealing themselves.
“There is still a very high reluctance from people who do have a mental illness to disclose that to their employers or to their peers,” he says. “So it is very important we can have safe, anonymous conversations with people so they then discover they are not alone.”
Anyone can visit the forum and read posts, but they must become members to comment.
According to SANE’s director of digital, service design and technology, Faruk Avdi, 25,000 unique visitors have visited the forums to date, with an average dwell time of 12 minutes per session. More than 800 people have now signed up to the forums, well exceeding the initial target of 500, with 20 -30 more joining each week.
“We hope to be at 2000 members within another 12 months from now,” Avdi says. “People who have a very particular experience in life find it is very difficult to explain to other people – it is like veterans coming home from war. They know other vets understand their experience but they can’t explain it to other people too readily.”
The reach of the service has also been expanded, with SANE embedding the forums in the pages of other mental health organisations. Fourteen partners have opted to incorporate the forums, and Avdi hopes to increase that number this year as well.
While the service is fully-moderated, Avdi says SANE is taking a light touch, and to date has been pleased with the interactions through the site.
“In time, we do want to take steps to see if there may be some way we can formalise or bring in people who are super users to see if they might like to fulfil a community management role with us,” Avdi says. “But that is ahead of us.”
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