If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder, the road ahead may seem overwhelming. Depressive illnesses challenge every aspect of life, and although treatment can be highly effective, it is not an easy journey for anyone involved.
If you haven’t already considered participating in a support group, perhaps you should. Your healthcare professional may have suggested it, or perhaps a family member, friend or coworker. This article will give you an overview of what to expect from a support group, the types of groups you might find in your community, and how to evaluate whether a given group could be right for you.
What is a support group?
First, it’s important to differentiate between a support group and group therapy:
Group therapy brings a number of patients together for confidential conversation guided by a trained psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counselor. Group therapy uses evidence-based methods to engage patients in conversation and exercises to help them identify and manage stressors and problems that may be worsening their symptoms.
Support groups are less structured than group therapy, and are focused primarily on providing a safe, confidential environment for participants to form connections and share their experiences and strategies for coping.
People suffering from depressive illnesses tend to isolate themselves, and to think they are the only ones feeling as they do. A support group can be a good place to address both of these barriers to recovery. Research shows that hearing from and sharing with others with similar experiences can be extremely helpful for those facing depression or bipolar illness.
Are support groups just for patients?
Patients aren’t the only ones who can benefit from support groups. Family members and friends also need a place to share. Many communities also offer support groups just for partners, parents, children or friends. In some cases, different support groups may meet at the same time and place, making it convenient for patients and family members to participate in their own groups.
Among their many benefits, these support groups can help family members learn more about their loved one’s illness and treatment, identify symptoms earlier, and confront the stigma surrounding mental illness. They also provide a much-needed environment for sharing the concerns and frustrations commonly experienced when living with a depressed or bipolar person.
Could I benefit from a support group?
Whether you are experiencing depression yourself or coping with a loved one’s illness, you may benefit from participating in a support group.
Recently, research was conducted at the University of Michigan with patients and family members who participated in guided support workshops. Although the particular groups studied differ from support groups typically available in local communities, the findings of the study point to just how helpful supportive groups and workshops can be for everyone living with depressive illnesses. After participating, patients felt that their family members knew more about their illnesses and were more involved in their recovery. Family members learned new strategies for coping, reducing stress, and accessing community resources. And both patients and family members gained an increased appreciation for the role of medication and the importance of sticking with a treatment plan.
Although support groups are not a substitute for professional mental health treatments, they can be a great complement to treatment, and a resource for those who are uninsured, underinsured, or cannot afford copays to access some extra help.
Where can I find a local support group?
Every community is different. Although support groups aren’t offered everywhere, chances are you can find a group near you. To begin with, explore what’s available at your local hospital, healthcare center, community mental health service, college or university. Support groups are also organized through the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), the nation’s leading patient-directed organization focused on helping people live with mood disorders. The DBSA has chapters across the country, overseeing more than 1,000 peer-run support groups. In the event that a “live” group has not been formed where you live, you might want to explore a support group that meets online. The DBSA also coordinates a number of online groups. Limited to 12 people per group, they meet at different times. Learn more here.
Who leads a support group?
Some support groups are led or facilitated by a professional such as a social worker or counselor, while others are peer-run, with no formal leader. When a leader is present, his or her job is to facilitate sharing, not to guide the group in any particular direction or to provide advice or therapy. Support groups available through the DBSA are peer-run. There is no evidence that one approach is better than the other.
Once I’ve joined a group, how do I know if it’s the right one for me?
It’s common to ask, “How do I know if it’s working?” A better question might be, “Am I feeling better?” If the answer is yes, you can be confident that the experience is worthwhile for you. If not, you may need to give it more time. It’s important to attend several sessions of a group before determining whether it’s a good fit. If after some time your doubts persist, it may be an indication that you need a different type or level of care, such as individual or group therapy, and/or that you need more frequent support or that the particular group you are attending is not the right fit for you.
What should I expect to gain from the experience?
Participants report a long list of benefits from being part of a support group, including:
- Connecting with others with similar experiences, knowing, perhaps for the first time, that they are not alone on the journey to recovery.
- Gaining practical skills and advice for living with mental illness, such as what to expect from different medications, how to adhere to a treatment plan, and how to manage side effects.
- Learning new coping strategies from others with firsthand experience.
- Finding a safe place to “vent” about frustrations like insurance or side effects.
- Discussing strategies for confronting stigma at home, at work and in the community.
- Gaining motivation to stick with a treatment plan.
Contributions to this article were made by Laura Nitzberg, M.S.W., Adjunct Lecturer, Psychiatry Social Work Division Lead and Social Work Manager in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry.