When living with bipolar disorder peer support groups can offer a confidential, safe environment for sharing and caring with others who’ve had similar experiences.
By Stephen Propst
Do you ever feel alone in your struggle with bipolar disorder? Do you ever feel as though no one else understands? Would you like to have help in managing bipolar disorder and your life? And, are you looking for a safe harbor in the midst of a storm? Your search is over—support is the answer.
While support is available from numerous sources—not the least of which is the Internet—support groups are one of the most visible forms, so let’s focus on them. The number of these groups, both in-person meetings and online forums, are on the rise. For example, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), with a network of more than 1,000 mood disorder support groups, experienced a 45 percent increase in the number of affiliated chapters over the past five years.
Despite the accessibility of these groups, many find it difficult to make the decision to go to a meeting. Even worse, some are not getting support from any source. Now, if the idea of attending a support group makes you feel a little apprehensive, let’s deal with some of the questions you may have. Let’s start with why you would consider attending a meeting in the first place.
Why go to a support group?
Support groups present an opportunity for people with a common issue to provide mutually beneficial encouragement for one another. They offer a confidential, safe environment for sharing and caring with others who’ve had similar experiences. In addition, attending a support group enables you to:
Learn more about bipolar disorder and other mood disorders.
Discover that you are not alone and that there’s hope.
Find resources that exist in your community.
Identify coping strategies and ways to make better decisions.
Improve doctor/patient communication and increase compliance.
Share ideas and perspectives among patients and family/friends.
A support group is not meant to be a substitute for professional treatment. Rather, it is an adjunct to your overall recovery plan. Support is a part of a multifaceted approach—which should include doctor visits, medication (if prescribed and managed by your doctor), and competent therapy. Such a strategy is essential in managing bipolar disorder.
Many people have some fear the first time they visit a support group. That’s normal, and I was no exception. Initially, I thought that I was alone in my struggle. How could there be a place where folks would listen and truly understand? I didn’t know I had anything to laugh about. In fact, I didn’t think there was anywhere to turn, but like many others, I now attend support groups regularly.
In reality, at support groups, you meet people who:
Listen to you and hear what you have to say.
Help you learn that there is hope and that you can gain and maintain recovery.
Laugh with you and help you find humor in life again.
Link you up with valuable resources.
Motivate you to stick to your treatment plan and move on with your life.
Relate to your situation because they’ve had similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
That’s who attends support groups. Do you want a safe, confidential environment where you can share your thoughts, gain new insights, and renew your hope? Then, you are a person who also could benefit from support.
How do they help?
Support groups, while a valuable component of recovery, are not meant to solve all your problems. It’s important to have realistic expectations. Yet, many people are guilty of mistaken thinking in this regard. Support groups are not:
A place to be diagnosed: Only competent health-care professionals should make diagnoses.
A pity party: The focus is on day-to-day coping, not feeling sorry for oneself.
A religion or a 12-step program: Each person’s path to recovery is unique.
Somewhere to go for medication management or therapy: A support group is not a substitute for professional treatment.
A place where you have to agree with everything you hear: Take the best, and leave the rest.
Somewhere to be judged or lectured to: A support group is made up of people with whom you can find mutual help and renewed hope.
According to a 1998 DBSA study… support groups help people maintain better mental health.
Don’t fall prey to these misperceptions. In addition, understand that support helps most when you make it an ongoing endeavor. Support is meant to be a part of a long-term solution, not a one-time, one-stop shop.
What can you expect?
Perhaps the best way to illustrate what you can expect at a support group is to share with you some comments from attendees. At the end of a recent group session, I asked this question: “What is the one thing you learned tonight that you can act on to make a positive difference in your life?” Attendees in their own words, responded, “I”:
know there is so much more I can do.
am not alone.
have to take charge of my own recovery.
have been looking for a quick fix: Now, I know that I need a long-term recovery plan.
need to find a doctor who has my best interest at heart.
am going to start standing up for myself.
am going to add therapy to my recovery plan.
have to give my medication a chance to work.
have to start communicating my needs more effectively.
What amazing revelations—especially after a group session of just 90 minutes. These observations show the phenomenal value of support! Mutual support is encouraging, enlightening, and empowering.
Where can I learn more?
For more information on support or to find a support group, check out these Web sites:
DBSAlliance.org (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance)
NAMI.org (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
mentalhealthamerica.net (Mental Health America)
In addition, local mental health departments, insurance companies, churches, and psychiatry departments at local universities are all potential resources. Your doctor or therapist should also be able to help point you in the right direction. And, don’t forget that many organizations offer support via the Internet. For example, the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation has been instrumental in offering online support from caring and knowledgeable individuals.
According to a 1998 DBSA study of 2,049 people from 190 cities in 38 states and the District of Columbia, support groups help people maintain better mental health. The study shows that people attending support groups for at least one year were less likely to be hospitalized. The study also showed that the longer people attended groups, the less likely they were to face barriers to treatment or stop medication against medical advice. And, more than half the people who were not adhering to treatment when they started attending groups became more compliant with continued attendance.
Printed as “Searching for support? You are not alone!,” Winter 2006
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