Causal Factors of Effective Psychosocial Outcomes in Online Mental Health Communities
Online mental health communities enable people to seek and provide support, and growing evidence shows the efficacy of community participation to cope with mental health distress. However, what factors of peer support lead to favorable psychosocial outcomes for individuals is less clear. Using a dataset of over 300K posts by ∼39K individuals on an online community TalkLife, we present a study to investigate the effect of several factors, such as adaptability, diversity, immediacy, and the nature of support. Unlike typical causal studies that focus on the effect of each treatment, we focus on the outcome and address the reverse causal question of identifying treatments that may have led to the outcome, drawing on case-control studies in epidemiology. Specifically, we define the outcome as an aggregate of affective, behavioral, and cognitive psychosocial change and identify Case (most improved) and Control (least improved) cohorts of individuals. Considering responses from peers as treatments, we evaluate the differences in the responses received by Case and Control, per matched clusters of similar individuals. We find that effective support includes complex language factors such as diversity, adaptability, and style, but simple indicators such as quantity and immediacy are not causally relevant. Our work bears methodological and design implications for online mental health platforms, and has the potential to guide suggestive interventions for peer supporters on these platforms.