The Art of Facilitating a Bipolar Support Group

John McManamy Health Guide
  • It’s an axiom in art and human endeavor that an artist not betray his or her exertions. The work just flows – no excruciating faces on the singers, no sweat on the dancers. If it’s a stage play, the audience doesn’t see the drama on the other side of the curtain.

    Running a peer-run support group is something like that. Ideally, the facilitator is an invisible and benign presence who allows the conversation to flow so freely and naturally that one could be forgiven for thinking that no one was in charge. At the same time, one can sense a wise and compassionate guide at the helm, ready to apply a firm and steady hand.
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    But making it look easy is a lot of work. On Sunday, four of us in our DBSA Princeton support group gave up a gorgeous spring afternoon so we could help each other become better facilitators. The stories we could bring to the table would break your heart, but we are all survivors committed to our wellness and recovery rather than self-pity. We feel strongly about our group and to helping others help themselves. Despite our wildly different backgrounds, we all feel very comfortable talking to each other. Our illness unites us in a common purpose, and that always is a good talking point.

    But first, the pizza. I had two McMan beauties fresh out of the oven. I’m a strong believer in food setting the scene. Who, after all, is going to be in a bad mood after savoring roasted red peppers and asparagus tips on four cheeses? Bring on the love.

    Then we got down to business. How about we keep some of the seats by the door vacant? one of the facilitators suggested. That way, there will be fewer disruptions when late-comers walk in. What a brilliant suggestion, thoughtful, simple, practical.

    Someone else came up with a series of suggestions for orienting new-comers, and someone else with ideas for speeding up the check-in. Call us butter because we were on a roll. We were brain-storming, playing with this idea, figuring out ways to implement that one.

    We discussed sensitive issues, such as when it is appropriate to raise religion and spirituality as topics. We talked about drawing boundaries. On one hand, we’re a bit crazy and allowances have to be made. On the other, we’re a vulnerable population. The choices aren’t always easy, but the facilitator always needs to make it look easy.

    Then there’s scheduling and choreography. When one of us is facilitating, the others need to act as buddies backing up the facilitator. Buddies may be out front acting as greeters, or they may be behind the scenes discretely cueing the facilitator during meetings. The facilitator knows he or she can count on a buddy should a problem develop or someone require individual attention.

    Think of a jazz group, each musician acutely attuned to the other.

    The coffee and the fruit and cookies came out. One last push and we finished up ahead of schedule, mission accomplished, personal bonds stronger than before. There was still a good hour or two left in a lovely day. Time to enjoy …
Published On: May 10, 2006