In the past, I’ve discussed ideas and strategies for relieving loneliness. About 12 years ago, I began my studies of how people who experience troubling emotional symptoms like loneliness, anxiety, depression, mania and psychosis relieve these symptoms and go on to do the things they want to do with their lives. I wanted to learn the simple, safe, everyday things that people do to help themselves feel better—’both for myself, to help relieve my own depression and anxiety, and to share with others through my work.
Over the years, I have talked with thousands of people about this topic. One finding that is consistent is that the number one way that people relieve loneliness and develop systems of support is by joining a support group. In this column, I will describe some of my own experiences with support groups, and will give you information that may be helpful to you if you decide a support group would be useful to you.
My Experience with Support Groups
When I first learned this intriguing piece of information about support groups, I was a bit “put off.” “Me go to a support group?”
In fact, I had some misconceptions about support groups. I think they got some bad press for a while. I thought I would have to share everything I was thinking and that others might judge me. Perhaps they would talk about me behind my back or tell others what I had said. Maybe the other members of the group wouldn’t like me. They might demand too much of me. What if it was all “touchy, feely”I’m not sure why I was afraid of that.
Being a brave soul, I talked to some people I knew who had symptoms similar to mine about starting a support group. They didn’t seem to have my reservations and began holding weekly meetings for anyone in the community who experienced mood disorders. The group was a great success. It’s been going for 12 years now! Some members are still the same, but new members keep joining, while old ones move on. Happily, many friendships, begun in this group, have lasted over the years and are still strong. I continue to attend occasionally and it is a warm, wonderful experience.
Not long after this first positive experience with a support group, a friend came to me and said, “I want more women in my lifemore friends. I want to start a support group.” I was interested. We spread the word and had 12 people at our first meeting. This group is still strong and active 10 years later. It has gone through many changesin membership, style, process, and focusbut one thing has remained: a strong commitment to friendship and mutual, respectful support. The group has weathered the storms of change and loss and strengthened its commitment as a result.
Each Monday night, the group gathers at the home of one of the members and, while sipping herbal tea, spends two hours discussing our feelings, the rich everyday happenings in our lives, and topics like aging, parenting, commitment, purpose, and spirituality. While these weekly meetings remain the central focus of the group, those friendships have provided a circle of support that is there whenever it is needed: the illness of an adult child, a parent’s dying, a career change, the death of a spouse, divorce, family discord, hurt feelings; when living seems like a journey that is too difficult to maneuver. Recently, members of the group climbed to a mountaintop to share their grief as a member of the group was dying. And together we celebrate the joys of lifethe marriages of our children, new grandchildren, our own achievements and those of the people we love, the beauty of the natural world, and the richness of our everyday experiences.
Finding and Attending a Support Group
As you can see, I have become convinced of the value of support groups. If you are not a member of a support group, and want to widen your circle of friends and connections with others, you may be asking, “How does one find a group to join?”
You can begin by looking at the Community Calendar in your newspaper. They may have notices of support groups that are open to new members, including:
- Groups for women or men;
- Groups for people of certain ages (like a group for women in menopause or for men who are retiring);
- Groups for people with special needs or conditions (like caregivers, cancer patients, diabetes patients, people attempting weight loss, or people working to address addictions or bereavement);
- Groups for people who have “special circumstances” (like having a parent with Alzheimer’s, being recently divorced, or being a crime victim); or
- Groups for people with common interests (like book clubs, bridge players and hikers).
A “12-Step” group that addresses an issue in your life, such as alcohol addiction or weight control, may sound right to you. You might locate a group by calling your local mental health center or community help line. Your physician or counselor might be able to direct you to a group. Ask your family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues for help in locating groups.
The next step is the hardestgoing the first time. Everyone has a hard time going to a support group the first time. Sometimes, it’s hard to make yourself go, even if you enjoy the group and have been attending for some time. Excuses like the following may keep you from going:
- I’m too tired when I get home in the evening.
- I’m fearful of meeting new people.
- I’m afraid I won’t be liked.
- I’m afraid I won’t be welcomed.
- It feels very risky.
- Transportation is difficult.
- I can’t find a group that seems to fit me.
- I don’t like to tell others what’s going on with me.
Try to get past those issues, figure out how to do it, and go.
Attend a support group several times before making a decision about whether it is the right one for you. Every group can have an off night in which things just don’t “gel.” You will know if this is not the right group for you if, after a few meetings, you still feel like an outsider. Don’t give up! Search out another group.
If you are going to attend a support group and connect with the other people in the group, you must feel safe there. Many groups address this need by having a set of guidelines or rules for the group, sometimes called a safety contract. At one of the first group meetings, the members can discuss what they need to feel safe in the group. While this list varies from group to group, depending on the purpose and focus of the group, some of the most common guidelines are agreements that:
- Personal information shared in the group will not be shared with anyone outside of the group meeting.
- Group members do not tell people outside of the group who attends the group.
- There is no interrupting when a person is speaking or sharing.
- Everyone gets a chance to share. Some groups limit each person’s sharing time to 10 minutes to insure that everyone gets time to speak.
- If you don’t feel like talking or sharing, you don’t have to.
- Members are respectful of each other and treat each other with mutual high regard.
- Judging, criticizing, teasing or “put-downs” are not allowed.
- Group members give other group members feedback only when it is requested.
- A person may leave the group whenever she or he wants or needs to take care of personal needs, to be comfortable, or to attend to other responsibilities.
- Attendance is optional.
Starting a Support Group
If you can’t find a support group that meets your needs, consider starting one of your own. It’s not a difficult thing to do. One simple way to do this is to invite several people you know to come to a meeting and encourage them to invite other friends as well. Setting it up with another person makes the process easier and more fun. There are many options for groups and there is no one “right way” for a group to be. The following ideas may help:
- When a group is always open to new members, it may be difficult to be closely connected to the other members and to share personal information. For this reason, the group may want to put restrictions around when people may come into the group. Group members can decide if the group will always be open to new members (an open group) or if it will accept members until a certain number of members has been reached or until a certain date and then no longer be open to new members (a closed group).
- Sometimes, groups get so big they become hard to manage. You may want to restrict your group to a certain number of participants. If a group is so big that not everyone gets a chance to speak and be supported, or if there are so many people in the group that people can’t get to know each other well, you may want to divide the group into smaller groups.
- Decide when you want to meet and for how long. Many support groups meet in the evening, but they can meet any time that is convenient for the members.
- Find a place to hold the meetings. Libraries, churches, schools, hospitals and health care agencies are good places to look for free space to use for support group meetings. If there is a charge for the space, you might have to ask group members to pay dues or to pay a certain amount each time they attend. If your group is small and is limited to a few people who know each other well, you may decide to hold the meetings in one person’s home or to take turns hosting the meeting.
- Depending on the kind of group you are starting, you may need to think about or discuss how you are going to get people to come to the group. You may want to:
- Ask each person who has worked on setting up the group to invite several friends or others he or she knows by personal invitation, phoning them, mailing them a note, or sending them an e-mail;
- Put a notice of the meetings in the local newspaper or newspapers;
- Ask your local radio station or stations to announce the group;
- Ask that the group be listed on your local community access television bulletin board; or
- Hang posters describing the group in places where interested people might congregate (for instance, if it is a group for people with a particular illness, you might put up posters in doctors’ offices and hospital waiting rooms).
Formats for support groups vary widely. The members of the support group decide how they want the meetings to be. If things don’t work well one way, the group can choose to do them another way.
Support Groups Are One Piece of a Plan
I hope this article has helped you to understand the value of support groups and given you information that will be helpful if you decide you want to be a member of a support group.
While I feel that the right support group is a valued addition to anyone’s life, please remember that it cannot be expected to meet all of your needs for support. A support group can be one part of your plan for wellness, but does not replace the need to maintain close connections with your family and friends, nor does it substitute for having people available with whom you can share the details of your daily life.
Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D. is an author, educator and mental health recovery advocate, as well as the developer of WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). To learn more about her books, such as the popular The Depression Workbook and Wellness Recovery Action Plan, her other writings, and WRAP, please visit her website, Mental Health Recovery and WRAP. Reprinted here with permission.