About a decade ago, Carol Rostucher made a plea on Facebook. She asked people to pray for her son, who was using heroin.
Nearly two dozen friends personally messaged her to share their experiences of having a loved one with substance-use disorder. Rostucher was shocked by how many understood the desperation behind her post — but, fortunately, the prayers she asked for were answered.
Her son celebrates four years of sobriety this month. Rostucher also started Angels in Motion, a Kensington community outreach group, that February. To accompany the group’s daily on-the-ground work, she formed an online support group on Facebook that now has more than 11,600 members. Every day, people post about missing loved ones, addiction treatment services and overall support.
“Everybody was keeping it such a secret and holding it in and trying to live with it by themselves, and I just felt like you have to put it out there and let people know that they’re not alone,” Rostucher said.
Thousands of people in the Philadelphia area turn to online groups, like the one Rostucher created, for support. Group administrators and experts said that the internet’s convenience and anonymity embolden people to seek out the help they need.
"You have to put it out there and let people know that they're not alone."
States away from her North Carolina hometown, Jourdan Porter felt like she was lacking a community. So, in November, she created one with the “Philly Queer Mental Health Support Group” on Facebook, which is “very queer/LGBTQ and POC friendly,” per its description. The group has since gained 146 members, and members have a monthly meeting in Porter’s West Philadelphia apartment.
Porter is in a clinical psychology doctoral program at Widener University, meaning she’s a “therapist half the week.” The group is a low-effort way for her to vent about her daily headaches with people who can relate, she said. It was also a welcome added support system after she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in October.
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“It can be really, really, really hard to be open and vulnerable in person … but the internet really helps cut that out,” Porter said. “I can let someone in and I can share my problems without having to essentially strip naked and be open to being judged.”
Rostucher said online support groups are also 24/7, while you sometimes have to wait for in-person support — whether it’s an appointment with a counselor, a call back from a friend or a 12-step meeting.
In the 1990s, the trend of people accessing online forums to provide guidance during real-life problems began to pick up, according to Jan Fernback, a media studies professor at Temple University.
"It can be really, really, really hard to be open and vulnerable in person, but the internet really helps cut that out."
Other experts argue that the increased use of online platforms for support is an example of humans’ nature to adapt.
“The widespread adoption and use of social media has added to the array of ways in which people connect with each other. We have colonized social media and made community work — both online and offline,” communication and information experts Anatolly Gruzd, Jenna Jacobson, Barry Wellman and Philip Mai wrote for the Journal of Information, Communication & Society in 2016.
Of course, there are both positive and negatives to the shift, Fernback said. Positives include interpersonal bonding, political action organizing and counseling. Negatives include potential illegal organizing and being more vulnerable to stalking or hacking. And, as with any community, there’s potential for ostracization.
Porter and Rostucher have non-negotiable guidelines for the group to avoid unpleasant experiences. Both insist on members having respect for one another even if they don’t agree on a topic. Porter’s list of rules also includes requesting people to put content warnings on posts about sensitive topics and avoiding the use of others’ first names when telling stories.
The hallmark of all online support groups is giving people access to others who can understand what they’re going through. Porter said a white, straight person would “look at a video clip of my day-to-day and be like, ‘Oh my God, that is what’s happening?’”
But, like any other support system, these groups are a way to celebrate. On Saturday, a post in Rostucher’s group thanked the community for its support while they were searching for a loved one in Kensington, who had been missing for three weeks. For Porter, it’s another chance to express her identity.
“Being queer and being Black and being a woman, it’s so amazing and I just love it,” Porter said. “I love being Black. I love being gay. … I’m really blessed.”-30-
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