Background: Peer support is an approach to cope with mental illness, and technology provides a way to facilitate peer support. However, there are barriers to seeking support in offline and technology-mediated contexts.
Objective: This study aims to uncover potential ways to design digital mental health peer support systems and to outline a set of principles for future designers to consider as they embark on designing these systems. By learning how existing systems are used by people in daily life and by centering their experiences, we can better understand how to design mental health peer support technologies that foreground people’s needs. One existing digital peer support system is Buddy Project, the case study in this paper.
Methods: This paper reports on an interview study with Buddy Project users (N=13). Data were analyzed using the constant comparative approach.
Results: Individuals matched through Buddy Project developed supportive friendships with one another, leading them to become each other’s peer supporters in their respective journeys. It was not only the mental health peer support that was important to participants but also being able to connect over other parts of their lives and identities. The design of Buddy Project provided a sense of anonymity and separation from pre-existing ties, making it easier for participants to disclose struggles; moreover, the pairs appreciated being able to browse each other’s social media pages before connecting. Buddy Project has an explicit mission to prevent suicide and demonstrates this mission across its online platforms, which helps reduce the stigma around mental health within the peer support space. Pairs were matched based on shared interests and identities. This choice aided the pairs in developing meaningful, compatible, and supportive relationships with each other, where they felt seen and understood. However, the pairs were concerned that matching based on a shared mental health diagnosis may lead to sharing unhealthy coping mechanisms or comparing themselves and the severity of their experiences with their peers.
Conclusions: The results of this study shed light on desirable features of a digital mental health peer support system: matching peers based on interests and identities that they self-identify with; having an explicit mental health-related mission coupled with social media and other web-based presences to signal that discussing mental health is safe within the peer support ecosystem; and not matching peers based on a broad mental health diagnosis. However, if the diagnosis is important, this matching should account for illness severity and educate peers on how to provide support while avoiding suggesting unhelpful coping mechanisms; allowing for some degree of anonymity and control over how peers present themselves to each other; and providing relevant information and tools to potential peers to help them decide if they would like to embark on a relationship with their matched peer before connecting with them.