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date: 26 May 2018

Summary and Keywords

There is a need to focus on research conducted on online talk about mental health in the domains of ethnomethodology, Conversation Analysis (CA), Discursive Psychology (DP), and Membership Categorization Analysis (MCA). We use the notion of “talk” in this article, as opposed to what could be considered a more common term such as “discourse,” to highlight that we approach computer-mediated discourse as inherently interactional. It is recipient designed and unfolds sequentially, responding to messages that have come before and building a context for messages that are constructed next. We will refer to the above domains that all share this view as CA(-related) approaches.

A characterizing feature of interactional approaches to online mental health talk is their focus on in-depth analyses of relatively small amounts of data. With this focus at the center of their attention, they sit in the wider field of Discourse Analysis (DA), or Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis (CMDA) who use language as their lens to understand human interaction. DA and CMDA research include a much wider set of both micro- and macro-analytic language-focused approaches to capture online discourse. Of all the CA(-related) work on online materials, a disproportionally large number of studies appear to deal with (mental) health talk.

We aim to answer the question what the field of research on online mental health talk has yielded in terms of findings and methodologies. Centrally, CA (-related) studies of online mental health talk have aimed to grasp the actions people accomplish and the identities they invoke when they address their health concerns. Examples of actions in online mental health talk in particular are presenting oneself, describing a problem, or offering advice. Relevant questions for the above approaches that consider language-as-social-action are how these different actions are brought off and how they are received, by closely examining contributions such as e-mail and chat postings and their subsequent responses.

With a focus on talk about mental health, this article will cover studies of online support groups (OSGs, also called online communities), and interaction in online counseling programs, mainly via online chat sessions.

This article is organized as follows. In the historiography, we present an overview of CA(-related) work on online mental health talk. We discuss findings from studies of online support groups (OSGs) first and then move to results from studies on online counseling. The start of our historiography section, however, sets out to briefly highlight how the Internet may offer several particularly attractive features for those with mental health problems or a mental illness.

After the historiography, we discuss what an interactional approach of online mental health talk looks like and focuses on. We offer examples of empirical studies to illustrate how written contributions to a forum, and e-mails or chat posts that are part of online counseling sessions are examined as interaction and which types of findings this results in. We conclude with a review of methodological issues that pertain to the field, address the most important ethical considerations that come into play when examining online mental health talk, and will lastly highlight some areas for future research.

Keywords: mental health, conversation analysis, discursive psychology, membership categorization analysis, computer-mediated discourse analysis, interaction, action, online support groups, OSGs, online counseling, identity, accountability, forumability, advice

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