Since 2013, suicide has been the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34 in the United States . The rate of major depressive episodes among young adults has increased by 63% since 2009 , with one quarter of young adults now reporting having endured a period of depression, anxiety, or other mental illness within the past year. Young adults have become the age demographic with the highest rate of mental illness, despite also being the group least likely to have received assistance from mental health services .
Seeking out commiseration, advice, attention, empathy, and/or general support, a portion of these young adults turn to technology, posting on social media platforms or reaching out in chat rooms. Some of these individuals engage on these platforms in lieu of counseling services, while others do so while they wait for appointments in severely backlogged mental health systems, in the early morning hours when they can’t reach their support networks, or so that they can be anonymous in a way that in-person counseling services do not allow. Regardless of the reasons that bring them to online peer support platforms, when these young adults type out a question or plea for assistance online, they are all looking for one thing: instant, immediate help.
Those who respond are thus tasked with providing support to someone they cannot physically see or hear and in most cases do not know at all. With no formal counseling training, these responders independently assess how best to write back, guided by their own intentions and motivations, in discussion threads that are largely unmoderated and unsupervised.
It is exactly these interactions between poster and responder that inspired the Peer Support DSSG project we partook in this summer, which sought to understand what types of responses are the most helpful to individuals sharing their struggles on an online peer support platform. However, as we methodically set about answering this question, we also found ourselves wrestling with our own ethical concerns about the platform we were researching and the nature of the question framing our work.
We—the three fellows working on the Peer Support project this summer—were selected for the DSSG program in part due to our shared commitment for doing social good. In full recognition of the limited way that our analysis may fall under that umbrella, we do feel that our act of documenting the content and behavior that exists on online peer support platforms is an important contribution. We hope that our work will inform individuals and mental health professionals who are considering these platforms and inspire further and more rigorous research to achieve what, in ten weeks, we could not: a careful and discerning analysis of peer support platforms, the void that they fill and where they may be falling short, and how they may—and should—change to better serve the vulnerable populations turning to them in moments of need.
David Lang, Kelly McMeekin, and Shweta Chopra
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, 1981-2017. Retrieved from https://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/leadcause.html
 Twenge, J., Cooper, A., Joiner, T., Duffy, M. and Binau, S. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005–2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 128(3), 185-199. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/abn0000410
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 18-5068, NSDUH Series H-53). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/