I enjoy visiting support forums and local support groups, but for many years I tended to avoided them.  The problem with most support forums (and this extends beyond forums that focus on chronic illness), is that the majority of people on them are having problems.   Obviously, looking for support because of a problem is one of the reasons to be on a support forum, but sometimes the constant barrage of negatively and despair can make your own situation feel much heavier and more likely to trigger some negative emotions.

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For a forum to be successful, it should have a good chunk of supportive members; if you find that everyone is venting and nobody is able to offer constructive advice or a shoulder to cry on, then it won’t do you much good.

One problem I’ve noticed is that sometimes people give bad advice when they should be telling someone to talk to their doctor instead.  You can often find these troubling posts, because they start with “I’m really scared and don’t know if I should go to an ER…”, “I’m bleeding so much and don’t know what to do…”, “The pain is so bad that I can’t even breath” and so on.  Those, my good readers, are not problems for a support group, but for a medical team at the nearest hospital!

I want you to keep in mind the following expectations of most support groups for IBD or ostomy-related concerns:

Don’t go there expecting medical advice.  Chances are, the other members of that forum are just like you; they have an experience to share, but they aren’t doctors, surgeons or even nurses. Take any advice they may offer as something you should be running by your doctor first.

Don’t go there giving medical advice! I know that as tempting as it may be to help others, please don’t give advice about something that a doctor should be addressing. This could include: changing the dose of medication, discontinuing medication, even using certain herbs or supplements can be dangerous. The best thing you can say to someone who needs medical advice is to ask them to talk to their doctor or nurse.

You will likely come across quite a few sad stories and situations.  Support forums are places where people tend to discuss things that they can’t or don’t want to discuss with family and friends.  Many of the topics deal with frustration, anger, helplessness and the baggage that goes along with being sick, and that’s OK, but if you aren’t in the right head space to deal with reading those stories, they could bring you down.

Not all the advice will be good advice. Just because it’s said or written, doesn’t make it true, and this is especially important to remember when it comes to support forums. I know that for many of the ostomy and IBD forums I’ve been on, people speak from their own experience, and that’s perfectly fine (and expected). But sometimes, what someone might believe to be “good advice”, could actually be dangerous. For example, while on a discussion about homemade ostomy pouch deodorants, someone had mentioned putting fabric softener in their pouch(!!). This is bad advice and should be noted as such.

So while I still encourage people to join and take part in support forums, it’s important to remember their strengths and limitations.  While they can be an awesome way to connect with other people who are in the same situation as you, they aren’t appropriate for receiving medical advice (and often not even dietary advice).

If you’re a member of a support forum, please point out overtly bad advice (you can do this while being respectful), and remember what’s generally expected from these groups.

QUESTION: How has your experience been with support groups (both online and offline)?