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Support Groups: What Are They All About?

Support group facilitator John McManamy explains what keeps him--and his group members--coming back.

By John McManamy

Historically, there’s been very little research into the significance and effectiveness of support groups in bipolar disorder treatment plans, meaning the field lacks a prescriptive assessment of the role of support groups in treating the condition.

The importance of support groups in my own recovery has been clear: I’ve been attending support groups for nearly six years and regard them as a vital part of my recovery. I’ve been involved with a DBSA Princeton, N.J., group that attracts about 20 people one night per week. Our group is fairly typical of the 1,000 or so DBSA groups that operate throughout the United States, and other groups such as NAMI and the Mental Health Association run their patient support groups in a broadly similar manner.

I facilitate our group rather than run it, and there is a clear distinction. My job is to watch the clock and make sure everyone gets a chance to talk. We do not show up at the group as experts. We are patients helping patients. We speak from our own experience, of what has worked for us.

We are not a “program.” We don’t work out of a manual. We don’t have 12 steps, only one – just show up. We do not judge people. The emphasis is on a safe, friendly, welcoming environment. What’s said in the room stays in the room.

We are not treatment or therapy. We are support. Support is not a pity party. We are into intelligently managing our illness so we can all lead fully functioning lives. If only our illness were as simple as dropping a lithium down the hatch. Unfortunately, it’s not, and we have to work on winning back our lives every which way we can.

Fortunately, in the course of living with our illness, we have all picked up a vast array of coping skills that we are very happy to share with each other, from how to manage our anger, to dealing with special challenges at work and in our relationships, to getting out of bed in the morning.

Establishing a Rapport

What happens when a person walks in the door the first time? This is crucial. Our illness can be extremely isolating -- so much so that the isolation is often worse than the disease itself. Leaving the security of one’s home to share your worst vulnerabilities with a group of strangers – individuals who suffer from mental illness – requires a great act of courage.

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