“Please tell me I’m not the only one…”: Understanding the Online Social Support Dynamics for Postpartum Depression

by Farhat Tasnim Progga

Congratulations! You’ve just brought a beautiful new life into the world, and everything is supposed to be perfect, right? Not quite. While motherhood can be a beautiful and rewarding experience, it’s also a time of significant change and adjustment for mothers. And for some women, the changes can lead to perinatal mental health concerns.Postpartum depression (PPD) is the most common of all perinatal concerns. One in every seven women in the United States suffers from PPD. While it is a common condition, it is frequently misunderstood and under-diagnosed.

It has been identified that throughout the postpartum period, mothers seek mental health support through social media and online forums. While browsing those platforms, we discovered how mothers share their stories with vivid details and exchange social support by posting their stories. We begin by situating our work in the context of previous research on offline and online sources of social support during the postpartum period and existing socio-technical systems developed for supporting the needs of new mothers.

Social support is the arrangement of assistance or comfort to others, typically to assist them in coping with biological, psychological, and social stressors.”

We undertook a formative study to gain a comprehensive understanding of the topics of naturally occurring online discussions and the online social support dynamics associated with PPD. Now, how we did this study?

To begin, we qualitatively analyzed posts and corresponding comments from three online postpartum depression communities. The three online PPD communities were from: Reddit, What to Expect and BabyCenter platform. We analyzed the data to find out the primary themes of the recurred discussions shared on the PPD-specific online communities and how the social support dynamics look like on those platforms. In the table, the dataset for analysis has been illustrated.

Example quotes per discussion themes

The majority of all the posts (n=2150) of the communities had a discussion topic and a pattern of seeking help. The three major overarching themes were: feelings/symptoms, causes/stressors, and discussion of coping strategies. Here, in the image examples quotes of per discussion themes has been provided.

Through our analysis of posts and comments in online PPD communities, we found that members provided a nurturing environment for each other by offering validation and reassurance regarding their feelings and symptoms. This behavior is consistent with previous research on online mental health communities. Common comments included phrases such as “you’re not alone” and “it’s normal to feel this way.” Mothers expressed gratitude for the social support and solidarity they received, with comments like

I appreciate your words of encouragement, knowing others have gone through the same thing and made it out on the other side,” and “Reading about other people’s experiences in this group makes me feel less alone and like a better mother.”

However, there were instances where posts expressing suicidal thoughts did not receive an immediate response, which is cause for concern. For instance, one mother posted, “I’m feeling suicidal. I contacted the suicide hotline, but they weren’t helpful and just wished me well.” The first response to this post was received after two hours, indicating a delay in addressing a potential crisis. To address this issue, developers can integrate automated methods that curate previous instances of similar posts and the corresponding helpful comments that were made in the past. If warning signs or crisis events are detected in posts and no immediate response is provided by other members, the interface can display these past comments immediately.

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