How my support group helps me
“We get each other. Whether I’m ‘flying high’’ or feeling down, the others in the group understand what I’m going through.”
Pamela N. of Denver has been attending her mental health support group for about a year-and-a-half. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder ten years ago, she said even after being hospitalized for her illness, she knew little about bipolar disorder except what she’d been told about medications. She knew almost nothing about steps she could take on her own to better manage her illness.
When she decided to visit a support group for the first time, she didn’t know what to expect. She says she was uncomfortable initially. “It was kind of scary. Some of the people there were more ill than I was, and I didn’t identify with them. I didn’t want to think I was as sick as they were. But then I found that there were also people more like me. And I discovered that it was very helpful to talk with all of them about their experiences.”
That’s why she says it’s important to give a group two or three visits to decide if it’s right for you.
Twenty to thirty people attend Pamela’s monthly group. The meeting begins with a speaker on topics ranging from understanding their illnesses to wellness skills for managing their symptoms.
After the presentation, participants break into small groups. Pamela has attended training to become a facilitator.
Taking turns around the circle, they check in with each other and share, for about five minutes each, about what’s going on in their lives and how they’re managing their illness.
“Sometimes, a group member is having trouble sitting still and needs to walk around the room,” Pamela says. “Someone may be feeling very depressed or very manic. People nod their heads in understanding and give encouragement. There’s no judgment. It helps on such a profound level.”
One night there was a woman in the group who was really in a downward cycle of depression, she says. “She mentioned that she hadn’t been sleeping. Other members suggested that her lack of sleep was probably contributing to her low mood. Often others can point out things that we don’t see in ourselves, but we don’t tell people what to do.”
“Often we hide our symptoms or pretend we’re doing better than we are,” she says, “but in the group we don’t have to do that.”
Jane Mountain, MD, is the leader of Pamela’s support group, which is affiliated with the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).
“A support or recovery group can boost your efforts toward recovery,” she says, “by providing education, peer empowerment and problem solving around life challenges.”
“Participants might offer comments like these,” she says:
- “I like the way you took care of yourself by coming tonight.”
- “It helps me to write down my questions for my doctor so I can ask them at my next appointment.”
- “Watching funny movies or calling friends have both helped me when I felt alone. What kinds of things help you when you are feeling so isolated?”
“Family members, friends and coworkers don’t always understand,” says Pamela, “but the group members do.”