Improving Peer Online Forums (iPOF): protocol for a realist evaluation of peer online mental health forums to inform practice and policy

Fiona Lobban, Matthew Coole, Emma Donaldson, Zoe Glossop, Rose Johnston, Steven Jones, Christopher Lodge, Karen Machin, Paul Marshall, Rachel Meacock, Kate Penhaligon, Tamara Rakic, Mat Rawsthorne, Paul Rayson, Heather Robinson, Jo Rycroft-Malone, Elena Semino, Nick Shryane, Sara Wise

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction Peer online mental health forums are commonly used and offer accessible support. Positive and negative impacts have been reported by forum members and moderators, but it is unclear why these impacts occur, for whom and in which forums. This multiple method realist study explores underlying mechanisms to understand how forums work for different people. The findings will inform codesign of best practice guidance and policy tools to enhance the uptake and effectiveness of peer online mental health forums.

Methods and analysis In workstream 1, we will conduct a realist synthesis, based on existing literature and interviews with approximately 20 stakeholders, to generate initial programme theories about the impacts of forums on members and moderators and mechanisms driving these. Initial theories that are relevant for forum design and implementation will be prioritised for testing in workstream 2.

Workstream 2 is a multiple case study design with mixed methods with several online mental health forums differing in contextual features. Quantitative surveys of forum members, qualitative interviews and Corpus-based Discourse Analysis and Natural Language Processing of forum posts will be used to test and refine programme theories. Final programme theories will be developed through novel triangulation of the data.

Workstream 3 will run alongside workstreams 1 and 2. Key stakeholders from participating forums, including members and moderators, will be recruited to a Codesign group. They will inform the study design and materials, refine and prioritise theories, and codesign best policy and practice guidance.

Ethics and dissemination Ethical approval was granted by Solihull Research Ethics Committee (IRAS 314029). Findings will be reported in accordance with RAMESES (Realist And MEta-narrative Evidence Syntheses: Evolving Standards) guidelines, published as open access and shared widely, along with codesigned tools.

Trial registration number ISRCTN 62469166; the protocol for the realist synthesis in workstream one is prospectively registered at PROSPERO CRD42022352528.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere075142
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jul 2023


  • Patient Participation


Dive into the research topics of 'Improving Peer Online Forums (iPOF): protocol for a realist evaluation of peer online mental health forums to inform practice and policy'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this