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Mental health disorders affect one in four people globally. That means for every 100 members in your community, 25 of them are struggling with mental health issues or have struggled with them in the past.

Out of those who have suffered from mental health disorders, two-thirds will never seek the help of a health professional. Instead, many of them will turn to online community to seek understanding, connection, and support.

Whether we are aware of it or not, mental health plays a part in all of our communities. It also plays a part in all of our lives, somewhere in the background, whilst we juggle what we want to do that day with the demands placed on us.

Throughout my career, I have managed various types of communities, including those specifically for people struggling with mental health conditions. There are differences between communities that focus on mental health and those that don’t, but there are far more similarities.

Understanding what mental health is and what mental health problems might look like (especially online) helps us keep our members safer and our communities more inclusive and supportive.

So, it’s not just mental health communities that need to consider mental health – it’s all of us involved in community management.

Let’s challenge some of the common assumptions we make about community and how we can reframe them to take better care of our members.

10 Incorrect Assumptions about Community that May Neglect Your Members’ Mental Health

1. Lurkers have no value.

Mental health problems can affect the way you think, feel, and behave, so “just” registering for an online community can feel like a huge step forward.

On the Elefriends registration page and promotional materials, we actively say you can “post as often or as little as you like.” Members tell us that simply reading content is helpful – life-saving even. This is particularly in times of crisis, when taking action might feel overwhelming.

In many communities, members who consume content are often called “lurkers”, and we often talk about how to “engage” them. But let’s flip that idea on its head:

  • Don’t assume lurkers have no value for the community, or that they gain no value from your site. Granted, this may be challenging for a community largely focused on turning a profit, but that is why it’s important to take a step back regularly and ask if you’re serving your members’ needs while they help to serve your business goals.
  • Keep lurkers in the feedback loop by surveying all members about impact, not just your most engaged.
  • Consider separately surveying members who joined but never posted to the community, and look at their online behavior separately. Did they log in again? Do they read updates but not contribute? It is possible that simply being a member of the community helps them feel validated. Emotional validation can play a huge role in our well-being.

2. Public moderation isn’t a big deal.

In our quarterly community survey, one of the most consistent messages we get from members is that they absolutely know when they are “being moderated”.

Here’s how you can avoid that problem:

  • Avoid calling people out publicly and use a private approach first. Empathy is a core communication facet in mental health communities.
  • We avoid “shaming language”. In a teen mental health community I ran previously, we had a psychologist check all of our email templates. We ended up softening a lot of the language, avoiding “should” and using could, maybe, sometimes, perhaps.

For example, we edited this real example:

“Posting about XYZ is a violation of the Community Guidelines. These rules are actively enforced, and repeatedly breaking them will result in your account being permanently suspended.”

Into something more like this:

“We are getting in touch to let you know that we spotted your post about XYZ, and wanted to remind you about the community guidelines here: LINK. These were created by members of the community, to help keep each other safe. Let us know if you have any questions, or if you have any ideas around how to make them better. We hope that you will continue participating in the forums.” 

3. The online world has less impact than “reality”.

In group therapy, when members are planning to leave the group, they are encouraged to attend one last session to give their peers the chance to say goodbye. It’s easy to leave online communities, so we take for granted that leaving has no impact on others.

In a research project Elefriends did with the University of East London, we found that our members were worried when others would delete their profile or leave. “Every time I stumble across an account that has been deleted, I find myself worrying about what could have happened to that person. What if they are not okay?” members would say.

  • Encourage members to say goodbye publicly if they feel comfortable to allow other members to communicate with them. Maybe you run a community for CEOs with a high turnover, or a community for avid racing fans. Either way, when a friend leaves abruptly, it can have a big impact.

4. We join communities to get help, not give it.

We join communities because we have a need. Many members leave after they get an answer and never return. Oftentimes, this is because we don’t offer ample opportunities for members to give help in return and we don’t consider that doing so would actually make them feel better.

When thinking about mental health in our communities, we have to strike a balance between taking and giving help. We’ve actually found that giving help can be extremely rewarding for members and can play a big part in rebuilding confidence:

  • Encourage a culture of support by proactively being supportive as a moderator, publicly thanking members for being supportive.
  • Include a note about giving and its importance in your house rules. We put it this way: “Ask as well as give – we all need a helping hand from time to time”.

5. When members leave, they are unhappy.

When our members leave, it’s often a good thing. It means they’re managing their mental health without daily support from the community. We’re all human and the ups and downs of life will impact us all; turnover in your community does not mean that you are doing a bad job. In fact, it can often mean the opposite: your members are healing, learning, growing, and expanding their horizons.

  • Don’t assume– ask members why they are leaving your community.
  • If you already do ask members why they leave in a survey or unsubscribe page, you could include mental health as an option for why they are leaving (maybe they’re stressed, experiencing poor health or have been recently bereaved, etc.).
  • Consider asking members who leave if they want to be prompted to return at another time, like three months down the line.

6. Continual upward engagement is the end goal.

It’s common for mental health communities to experience activity trends that indicate intense cycles of activity followed by none at all, as members dip in and out when they need support. Cyclical engagement is even more prevalent with specific types of mental health problems, like bipolar disorder, or with seasonal changes.

Mental health is a spectrum, and we all experience emotional overwhelm, where we might feel less inclined to contribute to our communities, no matter how engaged we are in the subject matter or purpose.

  • Allow members more freedom! We strive for continuous engagement in communities, but know that people aren’t constant in their habits, interests, passions, problems or needs.
  • Make sure members feel important by offering them opportunities to get more involved (at Elefriends, we ask members to contribute by doing things like recording voiceovers on our animations) no matter how many posts they’ve done or how long they’ve been a member of the community.

7. Attempts at re-engagement do no harm.

With marketing adages like the Rule of Seven that encourage us to follow up with members again and again, it can be tempting to try to re-engage members with repeated calls to action. In any community, there can be a lot of pressure to convert registrants to active participants. So, how can balance community engagement with members’ well-being?

In a previous role as a community manager for a software startup, we automated up to 30 emails, pop ups or nudges to customers depending on how they interacted with the software. This is common practice.

Feeling bombarded by automated messages is certainly not unique to those dealing with mental problems; for any of us experiencing daily emotional overwhelm, these nudges can feel invasive or even passive aggressive.

  • Consider spacing out your re-engagement emails over months instead of days, as people are receptive at different times as they experience different emotions.
  • In mental health communities, Sunday evenings seem almost to be a universal time for higher anxiety, as do the early hours of the morning before work or when members are having trouble sleeping. This is where knowing your customers and empathizing with their challenges is key.
  • What is your community’s brand or voice? Is it kind? Or does it prod and push?

8. Going to in-person meetups is easy.

At Elefriends, we use in-person events to build stronger relationships between members. There’s no denying that something magic happens in-person that can’t always be replicated online.

But meeting in-person can be a big step for someone who is feeling anxious. Traveling to unfamiliar places and meeting new people can seem overwhelming.

That’s why a lot of people with mental health problems seek support online in the first place. It’s not just convenient to get answers and make friends online. It’s also emotionally safer for many people: it offers anonymity, a moderated environment, a low tolerance for trolling, and – when well-managed – a strongly supportive culture. Members have told us that “welcoming others can feel easier online as it’s faceless”.

Our members have shared lots of ideas around the challenges in crossing over from online to offline:

  • Offer clear information on pick-up or drop-off locations.
  • Draw clear boundaries around revealing real names or locations at in-person meetings.
  • Continue to offer both online and offline events, or half-ways points. For example, Elefriends host their own online parties (like dance parties where they link to music videos and invite each other), which are fun and inclusive and encourage bonding between smaller sub-groups.
  • Be deliberately welcoming at in-person events; members say “joining a local Mind can feel like joining a group of people who are already friends.”
  • Members dislike being “told off” for not attending events and prefer flexibility. Although this may make logistics trickier, it can make an attendance next time much more likely.
  • Create a space for people to share online before meeting offline. Members told us that “sharing comforting media before events, like pictures, quotes or links, are easy to send and can be a boost to anyone’s day.”

9. Self-disclosure takes a long time.

Self disclosure seems to happen a lot more easily in mental health-focused communities than others. These communities have clear boundaries (members don’t disclose their locations, the community is private, and it’s a moderated space).

Disclosure happens more quickly when the rules are clear and members feel safe. Here’s how to create an environment that is more welcoming of self-disclosure:

  • Ask your community if boundaries are clear or what would help them feel safer. Is there even a space in your community where members could talk about their well-being or share anything more personal?
  • Establish routines. Elefriends have lots of “rituals” around well-being and support, which open the space to share more. For example, they often make each other virtual cups of tea or breakfast. Could you try out some creative ways to open up conversations about how members really are?

10. “I’ll know when someone is struggling.”

A mental health problem can feel just as bad, or worse, than any other physical illness – only you cannot see it. Fears around mental health are often reinforced by the negative (and often unrealistic) way that people experiencing mental health problems are shown on TV, in films, and by the media. So, it’s easy to assume that it will be obvious if someone is struggling.

We might not realize it until community members are in crisis mode. So how can we ensure that we see early signs?

  • Take all threats of harm seriously.
  • If someone has mentioned harming themselves, don’t be shy to ask direct questions.
  • Make sure you have a clear plan of action for how to keep members safe and escalate any posts around harm to self or others. This is a great resource on how to do this, with contributions from over 30 community partners.
  • Consider a dedicated online space for venting or discussing well-being, whether it’s a community for baristas or dog owners. Encouraging members to share more information about themselves helps them bond, build trust, and keep coming back to the community.

Let’s Raise Our Collective Awareness of Mental Health in Our Communities

We’re all people who have feelings, both positive and negative. We all struggle at different times. We can also be there for one another and for our members during these times.

If communities are about trust and relationships, then make sure your community allows people to really be themselves. That means a space where people can be open, share problems, and ask for as well as give support.

Create an openly low tolerance for mental health stigma in your community and in the profession as a whole. In doing so, you will find that you have created an environment that allows your members to bring their whole selves — and creates a better world for us all.

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Liz Crampton is a Brit living in foggy San Francisco. She's been a Community Manager for around 10 years across nonprofits, for profits and startups around the world. You will most likely find her writing community strategy, writing sketch comedy or drinking a cup of tea.