The power of peer-to-peer emotional support communities
Before I tell my story, I want to clarify that I’m not trained as a clinical psychologist or therapist. My only exposure with mental health counseling has been serving as a suicide hotline counselor for two years at San Francisco Suicide Prevention. Beyond that, I yearn to provide a kind and non-judgmental ear for my peers in my daily life.
I’m interested in the intersection of technology and mental health (I’m planning a Mental Health Hackathon in San Francisco at CIIS, Feb 3–4). After delving into the space more, I stumbled across an incredible online community: https://www.reddit.com/r/KindVoice/.
/r/KindVoice is a matchmaking community of sorts, which allows people who feel lonely or depressed to talk to others who are offering to listen. I signed up to offer a kind voice, out of a mixture of good will and curiosity.
After “redditors” direct-messaged me, we set up a system to communicate over Facebook Messenger and chat asynchronously. On average, each redditor sent about five messages/day. I talked to seven different redditors, and three of the conversations died out after the first few days, because they stopped responding.
For the others, I’ve developed a recurring messaging relationship with them that’s lasted several weeks — the redditor will message me when feeling down or sad, and I’ll offer some kind words and listen. I’ll also check in with them on a weekly basis. We talk about a variety of topics, but usually it ends up boiling down to just listening.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”- Leo Buscaglia
It’s remarkable and fascinating to me that something like this could occur — two strangers on the internet, chatting to one another, one offering a kind voice to the other. A beautiful and inspiring community of individuals, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
Emotional Support in the 21st Century
Therapy can be a fantastic resource for many individuals, but I’m increasingly curious about the power of peer-to-peer relationships and “befriending” as a mitigator for people who are feeling sad or lonely.
Often, people who are in distress or emotional pain don’t reach out to therapists — perhaps the model of interaction doesn’t work, they’re too nervous to engage with the therapist, or their sadness is momentary, not long-term. Surely, /r/KindVoice has it’s own set of problems: listeners have little context on those in need and developing an online-only relationship can be challenging.
How can we innovate on the ways we think about helping those with emotional distress? I believe /r/KindVoice is a fantastic experiment, and I’m excited to see how society’s treatment of emotional support will continue to evolve.