The Support Group Idea

Christopher Lukas Health Guide
  • The other night, around 6 p.m., I went to a depression and bipolar support group. Despite having had dysthymia for many years, I had never attended this kind of group.
    For one thing, I believed that psychotherapy and medication was all I needed to keep on an even keel.

    For another, I am one of those people who feels I don't want to share "my story" with a lot of strangers, and I'm not sure I want a lot of strangers sharing their story with me. It's an insular opinion, some might even say self-centered. I plead guilty.
    The reason I attended this group is that I had recently become involved with an umbrella organization for what is called "peer support," and I felt I needed to experience that kind of support, not make any unschooled opinions about it.

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    When I walked into the center where these groups go on - twice a week, for two hours each - there were about fifteen people waiting around for the rooms to open. Each group had its own room: one for people with depression, one for people with bipolar disorder. Newcomers, like me, were ushered into a separate space. We needed to be given an orientation about the way the groups worked, and we needed to air our own story so that the facilitator could make sure we were not in need of immediate psychiatric help, and so that we could be put in the proper group.

    That immediately reassured me. Here was a woman (the facilitator) who was going to make sure that everyone was safe and that they indeed belonged here. In fact, one of the young women in our group did not know if she was depressed or not. She felt she might be and had come here to find out. The facilitator asked if this woman had been seen by a psychologist or psychiatrist - had she been evaluated. The answer was no.
    "You might not be depressed," the leader of the group said. "You might have a physiological problem or you may have some other mental ailment. You need to see a psychiatrist to make sure you belong here. Meanwhile, stay, learn how we work."
    The woman felt reassured, nodding her head.

    The facilitator then went into a short talk about why groups like these were useful. "We believe in a three part structure. Medication, which can be very helpful for both bipolar disorder and depression. Psychotherapy or counseling of one sort or another, but especially cognitive-behavioral therapy. And peer group work."

    Most of us know about CBT and medication. For some years now, it's been shown that a combination of the two can alleviate many of our ailments' terrible symptoms; and can help us integrate back into our lives. "Peer group counseling does something more," the facilitator said. "It shows us that healing is possible; it shows us that others have gotten through the morass of these disorders; it can make us feel comfortable about who we are by showing us that we are not alone."

    As the evening progressed, and as people began to tell their stories, I finally saw how group support could fit into the treatment of depression. I saw men and women nodding their heads as those around them told of the isolation they feel when things get tough. I heard people discussing how the medication they were on wasn't working, and how they needed something more.

  • The facilitator cautioned that what worked for one person wouldn't necessarily work for another, and that discussions about meds would be kept to a minimum in the groups. "It's not our expertise. You need to know that it often takes a long time to find the right medicine, but that's something for you to discuss with your pscychopharmacologist."

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    The facilitator told something of her own story, too, and that was helpful. Fifteen years ago, she had been so depressed that she took to her bed and contemplated suicide. She got to the peer counseling center, which got her to a psychiatrist. She came to the groups and now, all these years later, she was clearly a functioning woman who could help others.

    Knowing that there are people like myself was very reassuring.

    Knowing that there is an organization that is open every week to helping me come to terms with my illness.

    Knowing that there is a three-legged stool on which to rest.

    All that is very reassuring.




Published On: August 11, 2008