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How to Start a Support Group

Taking part in a support group can be one of the most helpful and rewarding components of a treatment plan, but not every area has one available.  Lynne Taetzsch breaks down the step-by-step guidelines you need to know to help you start your own support group.

By Lynne Taetzsch

When I was in the middle of a deep depression six years ago, going to my local bipolar support group meetings was the best thing I did for myself.  With advice, support and encouragement from group members, I found help in the mental health community and gradually got myself together.  I still go to meetings regularly in order to maintain my own balance and help others.

Yet whenever I recommend going to bipolar support group meetings, I invariably hear from someone who lives in an area where there are no such groups available.  There were none in Ithaca, New York, where I now live, until ten years ago when Carole Stone, along with a supportive friend, founded the Ithaca Bipolar Explorers, which is affiliated with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).

All it takes is one dedicated person to get a support group started, though when two or more work together, the burden is lighter.  DBSA offers a complete package on how to start a support group affiliated with their organization, though you can start with an independent group and decide later if you want to affiliate. 

The two basic things you need in order to start a group are a place to meet and a telephone number people can call to obtain information about the group.  Our Ithaca group publishes both my and Carole’s telephone number, and meets in our Women’s Community Building.  In general, a public space is better than meeting in someone’s house, and it’s best to avoid places that might have strong associations for some people, like a hospital or church.  Check out community centers, schools, and other public spaces used by similar support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, etc.   

If possible, find an advisor for your group in the mental health community.  Having such an advisor may make it easier to find a space to meet as well.  Having a psychiatrist or therapist as an advisor lends credibility to your project, and the advisor can help promote your group among the mental health community. 

A support group is essentially peer -run, however, and very different from group therapy.  The focus is on self-help, with the idea that all of us together know more than any one of us individually, and that each person is the ultimate authority on what will work for them. 

Support group guidelines listed by DBSA include:

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