Well, our group is open in the sense that we put a notice in the local paper and our policy states everyone is welcome: “people who are bipolar, people who might be, people who don't want to be, people with family or friends with the condition, and people who want to learn more about it for whatever reason.” Perhaps I should simply have pointed this information out to Jane and told her she was welcome any time.
Instead, since Jane had specifically asked for permission to come, I emailed our group members and asked them if it was OK with them. At that point, quite a discussion ensued. Some members felt strongly that we should allow Jane to come in order to further education in this area and to help de-stigmatize mental illness. They also reiterated that our meetings are open to anyone.
But a couple members felt strongly that we should say “no” to Jane. They said they would feel uncomfortable with a “stranger” listening in. They said that our group’s purpose was to help and support each other, not to be responsible for educating anyone else. And a couple members who felt that they personally wouldn’t mind Jane sitting in said that we should not agree to it unless everyone felt the same way. That is, it shouldn’t be a majority decision, but one of united consensus.
In the end, after talking to Jane on the phone and finding out that she hadn’t picked our group because of any special interest in bipolar disorder, I asked that she find another group to observe. We have many different types of support groups in our town that meet regularly, so I knew she wouldn’t have trouble finding one.
Our group resolved this conflict quite amiably, even though a few people felt very strongly about their opposing positions. It was great that we could have this open communication and rethink what our support group is all about and what it means to us. There is nothing wrong with having differing opinions about how a support group should be run. What’s important is working them out effectively so that the group survives and thrives.