Make a Connection: Why peer support works
We examine how online peer support can help people in recovery maintain changes to their alcohol or drug use.
Social support and connection is paramount for people who want to make changes to alcohol or drug use, both in the early stages and as we move into active recovery. In our offline lives, friends and family are often our first line of support — the challenge is that many of our loved ones have not personally experienced addiction themselves. They might not always know how to best provide support.
Most of us have been using the internet to socialise for a couple of decades now, but nothing has demonstrated the importance of online social spaces like the pandemic. The internet gave us a space to communicate when social distancing was literally life-saving. We can make digital connections through even the most difficult and inconvenient of circumstances: morning, noon or night we can reach out from anywhere we are, from the most cramped city shoebox to an outback house days from the nearest neighbour. The opportunities to communicate are almost limitless. The internet means that even when we feel alone, we have the capacity to build a community.
Online communities can sometimes provide what our offline connections can not. The users of the Counselling Online Peer Support forum and similar services have been using that capacity to build a community of people who understand what it is like to struggle with drugs and alcohol.
In other cases, we might not be ready to confide in our loved ones. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to open up from a position of protected anonymity. There is a long history of peer support groups like AA and NA coming together to help people through recovery, but many people face barriers to attending in ‘real life’: maybe they fear being identified because they live in a small town, or have a high public profile, struggle to make time in a busy schedule of caregiving responsibilities or shift work, or face the tyranny of distance from a remote location. Fortunately, online communities have stepped in to provide peer support that is often available 24/7, wherever you are in the world.
Peer support has many benefits:
- Opens the doors to new possibilities and beginnings.
- Learning from each other’s experiences.
- Sharing change strategies.
- Reduces feelings of shame and stigma by connecting to people who understand you.
- Reduces the sense of isolation and loneliness.
- Helps normalise the issues people face with problematic alcohol and drugs use.
- Sharing questions and information.
- Having a space to vent.
- Increasing feelings of acceptance, worth and belonging.
- Increasing motivation, inspiration and hope.
Online peer support has additional benefits:
- Being able to remain anonymous.
- Flexible schedule means that you can decide when it's convenient for you to connect.
- Flexible participation — you don’t have to actively participate, you can just ‘lurk’ (read messages to learn from others without having to post or participate yourself).
- Freedom to take a break from the group at anytime you want/need to — and also the freedom to return whenever you want.
- Low cost — if you already have a device and internet, you’re set.
Tips to make the most of online peer support communities
Just like any other tool, peer support communities get easier to navigate with practice. Here are some tips to help you get started.
- Be clear on the type of support you want: People can know how to better support you if you are specific on the type of help or support you want to receive. Do you want suggestions for tips and strategies, or do you just want to vent? Tell the other members that when you post.
- Set a schedule: Choose a schedule that will help you control the amount of time you invest online and also help you integrate it into your daily routine. Try to visit the community regularly, at least at first.
- Take a break when you need it: Peer support is a reciprocal relationship that means we don’t just receive support, we also provide it to others. Sometimes that idea might feel overwhelming, exhausting or anxiety-provoking. It’s okay to take a break if you’re not in the right headspace.
- Combine online and offline support: Online and offline peer support communities work best when they complement each other. While an online community has advantages such as the schedule flexibility or the possibility of remaining anonymous, face-to-face support has other advantages. By combining both you will strengthen your support network and ensure you get the best out of both worlds. Sources of face-to-face support can include your friends, family, medical professionals, counsellors and peer support groups like AA, NA, or Smart Recovery.
- Find a community that feels right to you: While we’re obviously partial to the Counselling Online Peer Support forum, there are many different types of online communities available, including forums such as SANE who support people affected by complex mental health issues, Gambling Help Online Forums a peer support community for people affected by gambling issues, Reachout Parents originally a youth orientated service Reachout has expanded their supports to parents too and QLife an Australian wide LGBTI peer support and referral service. Many of these communities (including ours!) are moderated by qualified counsellors who can help out when required.
Many mainstream social media services such as Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and TikTok also have thriving communities of people who are trying to change their substance use — you might find these communities helpful, but be cautious. These groups typically don’t have any qualified counsellors moderating the content, so misinformation, scams and triggering or malicious content can proliferate. If it feels like a community is harmful, it probably is. Trust your gut.
If you need to talk but you’re not quite ready to jump onto a peer support community, our trained counsellors are here for you 24/7. Chat with us online.