Bipolar Disorder Support Groups: Are They for Me?

John McManamy Health Guide
  • In a comment to a recent post, Managing Your Bipolar - Only You Can Do It - Kristin pointed out that “I found the DBSA - The Depression Bipolar Support Alliance - helpful. There is also NAMI - National Alliance on Mental Illness.”

    Many thanks, Kristin, for the reminder. I have been intensely involved with both organizations. I am currently serving on the board of NAMI San Diego, which was recognized this year by the national organization as outstanding local affiliate. I was also the founding facilitator of DBSA Princeton, NJ (which received recognition as outstanding small chapter three years after I left).

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    As I recalled last year on my blog Knowledge is Necessity, of my time facilitating DBSA Princeton:

    We all had our issues to deal with, demons to wrestle, beasts to confront. All our lives were either on hold or at best in a tentative state of forward movement. The past was something we’d just escaped from, the present probationary, the future uncertain. Somehow, we found each other. Out from the cold of winter New Jersey evenings into the warmth of each other’s company.

    We shared our stories. We laughed. We cried. We left feeling way better than when we arrived. ...

    DBSA’s strength is its support groups, people facing the same daily challenges as you and me, each of us sharing our wisdom and insight. Typically, we walk into our first meeting, uncertain and perplexed, needing help. Typically enough, in almost nothing flat, we become the helpers.

    “I can’t seem to get out of bed in the morning,” a newcomer may open.

    Anyone else have problems getting out of bed? I ask. Five hands go up.

    It works every time. You see the realization dawn - I am not alone. I have people to talk to. People like me. People who have walked in my shoes, speaking from lived experience.

    Support groups are not for everyone, but I urge those who are new to their diagnosis to seek out a group in your area, and attend at least three meetings. A support group is by far the quickest way to get a real-world take on your illness, the complexities involved in its management, and the zillion-and-one coping skills you will need to successfully manage your life.

    Support groups are not to be confused with treatment, nor are they there to help you resolve complex personal issues such as trauma or a marriage break-up. Likewise, support groups are no substitute for a social life. But in the limited context of offering a safe haven for people like us to share our concerns and hold out a helping hand, I cannot recommend them enough.

    A couple of provisos:

    • Bipolar may be a life-long illness, but that doesn’t mean a support group needs to be a long-term commitment. The people who get the most out of support groups, in my experience, are those who recognize when it’s time to move on.
    • You get a lot more out of the group by giving rather than taking. This ties into the long-term issue. My justification for staying with DBSA Princeton for three years (and before that with a non-DBSA support group in CT) was due to my role as a facilitator. Leading a group helped me enormously in overcoming my social anxiety, as well as in making me far more sensitive to the needs of others. Never mind my illness - I know, as a result of my facilitating, I am a much better person than I used to be. But, then, it was time to move on.

    That was three-and-a-half years ago. Then, two-and-a-bit years ago, NAMI called.

    Next week: I talk about NAMI ...

    DBSA Website

    NAMI Website

Published On: August 01, 2011