What You Need to Know About Mental Health Support Groups
Many people find support groups a helpful tool to aid recovery. By sharing your experiences in a safe and confidential setting, you gain hope and develop supportive relationships
Sometimes a group of people can assemble and amazing things will happen. These people often share a common problem, and by listening and working together, they can help each other heal and grow. These are sometimes called support groups, or self-help groups.
When you face a problem in life, the first people to whom you turn are often friends and family members. But sometimes people in your life may struggle to relate, or they might be more focused on giving advice than hearing what you have to say. So often it can prove beneficial to sit and talk with other people who are dealing with the same kinds of issues. These issues might include addiction, medical problems, family problems, or other life situations. Together, group members support and strengthen each other as they learn to problem-solve and cope with life’s challenges.
How do support groups work, exactly? Many rely on the principal of self-disclosure, where participants share stories and information about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. However, people are welcome to share as little or as much as they like. Self-disclosure can be powerful because it reminds people that they are not alone and that others have persevered and even flourished despite challenging times. People who suffer from a medical illness can also feel less isolated when they can relate to others in a similar situation.
There are many different types of support groups. Some are independent, while others may be affiliated with a larger organization. Groups sometimes meet in people’s homes, but often they meet out in the community, at locations such as schools, places of worship, hospitals, community centers, or other non-profit organizations. Sometimes a group will have a professional leading the discussion and providing education for members, but most often support groups simply consist of people who are experiencing a similar dilemma. Often more experienced members of the groups welcome newer members by sharing information from their own lives, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t also continue to learn and grow.
Perhaps the most famous type of self-help or support group is the twelve-step model found in Alcoholics Anonymous. This model, often used for other kinds of dependence such as overeating or gambling, helps keep identities confidential outside of meetings but provides familiarity and support within the group. Other types of support groups might be more psychoeducational in nature, providing important information about dealing with an illness or challenge. If a person wishes to completely retain their anonymity or struggles to find a group in their region, they might try an online support group. Chat rooms, discussion boards, and other websites can connect people from around the globe and provide support 24 hours a day.
How Do I Start?
Consult with a professional
Your first instinct might be to conduct an online search, which might prove helpful. However, many groups in your community may not advertise online, so if you’re looking locally, you might want to consider talking to a doctor or mental health professional for options. They are bound to keep your information confidential, so you don’t have to worry about keeping issues private.
Try multiple groups
Many people acknowledge that it can take a while to find a doctor or a counselor they like. Similarly, you might not find the best support group right away. Each group is different and has different personalities. So don’t talk yourself out of a second try if the first group you visit isn’t quite right for you.
Don’t worry about your participation
No support group will ever force you to participate. Not everyone feels ready to share personal information with strangers right away, so it’s okay to just listen until you feel ready. Often listening to other people’s stories can provide comfort and provide needed information, and this can prepare you to begin to support others you may encounter in the future who struggling with similar challenges.
It’s likely that you will hear interesting and powerful stories in a support group. But these stories should be kept in the group, and you should respect the privacy of others. While you’re welcome to share your own thoughts on the subject with friends and family, remember that a group works best when you respect other people’s stories and personal information.
No question is too silly
Don’t be afraid to ask simple questions in a support group. People get the most out of a group when they take the time to advocate for their needs. So if something sounds confusing, or if you feel like you have a different perspective, consider that you have something to offer the group. Be respectful in your response, and remember that you might be helping someone who hasn’t summoned the courage to ask that same question.
If you still feel too nervous to begin, you can always ask a friend or family member to accompany you to a local group. Showing up is a powerful step towards accepting the reality that you are not alone, and that help is available. By welcoming support and courage, you can model for others the reality that no one is truly alone, and that people can heal with the help of their community.