The Low-Down on Mental Health Support Groups

by / April 3, 2015 Health No Comments

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Circle of empty chairs. Research suggests peer-run groups provide a comfort zone for patients. When Tara Reilly was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 22, she didn’t think anyone else could relate. But last year, an online search brought Reilly, now 25, to a local chapter of a peer support group sponsored by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, a mental health nonprofit. There, she found solace among others who shared stories similar to her own. “There’s such a stigma with mental health conditions,” Reilly says. “It’s not something you can just talk about with most people. Having people who understand [my experience] is great.” But the benefits don’t end there. Research suggests peer-run support groups for patients with mental illnesses confer myriad benefits, ranging from physical to emotional to social. Here are a few reasons you might want to seek out a support group if you have depression, bipolar or another disorder: They’re varied. There’s no one-size-fits-all form of mental illness – and the same can be said for peer support groups, says Steve Harrington, president of the International Association of Peer Supporters, a nonprofit that promotes peer support in mental health systems. This means you’re likely to find a group that’s a good match for you. Peer support groups are available in different settings, including psychiatric hospitals, outpatient programs, community grassroots endeavors and local groups sponsored by national organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Some are highly structured; others are informal. One group might consist of five people; another, 25. They run the gamut from specialized and specific – i.e., geared toward people with schizophrenia or survivors of suicide – to general, with an overall focus on mental health. The unifying factor is that each group comprises – and is moderated by – peers who have experience living with a mental illness. When searching for a peer support group, take all of the above factors into consideration, says Dr. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. But those aren’t the only criteria that might make one group a better choice than another. “Groups are a function of the people in them,” Humphreys says. “Any given group can have a powerful personality in it that rubs you the wrong way, or it could just have a philosophy that doesn’t match your experience. People need to shop carefully just like they would for a therapist to make sure it’s a fit.” This might mean trying multiple groups, relying on word-of-mouth suggestions from trusted friends, searching the Internet for local groups or asking your doctor for a referral. Bottom line? Don’t worry about what kind of group you choose. Instead, focus on what makes you feel comfortable and fits your lifestyle and needs. Don’t let a few failed attempts discourage you, either. After a while, you’re bound to find the right one. They’re confidential. Peer support groups share a similar mantra: What’s said in the group stays in the group. This means you can talk freely without worrying about gossip or discrimination. “People with mental illness are frequently reluctant to share much about their illness, or the fact that they have a mental illness, with the general public, or their friends and family,” says Sam Walinsky, who works as a peer mentor and group facilitator for a support group run by NAMI’s Montgomery County, Maryland, chapter. “This is partly because of the stigma that comes along with mental illness. Support groups provide an opportunity through which people can speak with assurance of complete confidence.” And although peer-led support groups are occasionally criticized for the fact that they don’t keep detailed participant records or follow up with members, this also means people can seek help for mental health conditions without worrying about insurance or career repercussions, Humphries says. They provide outside resources. Peer support groups don’t just provide emotional assistance – they often connect participants with educational, vocational and housing opportunities, says Leah Harris, director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, an advocacy organization that provides social services and other resources for individuals with mental illness. They’ll help you navigate social security disability; hook you up with a career counselor; and teach you day-to-day living skills. There are few taboos. “[In my group], we don’t shy away from tricky topics,” says Denise Fay-Guthrie, a peer mentor and group facilitator for NAMI-Montgomery County. “We call them ‘hot potatoes.’ For instance, if someone is talking about suicide, we don’t gasp. Just because someone mentioned suicide, that doesn’t mean we’re going to go and call a mobile crisis team.” This approach allows participants to safely explore topics that might otherwise elicit negative reactions from family members or peers. Of course, this isn’t the case for all groups. Some have specific rules to not talk about graphic subjects, self-harm or suicide. However, Walinsky says, tough conversations or issues are usually viewed as the norm – not the exception. “Working through discomfort can mean you are working through a comfort zone,” he says. “That’s when growth can happen.”

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