“Should I join a depression support group?” I’ve been asked this a few times. I’ve also met a number of people with different support-group experiences. Many articles, my own included, will recommend joining a support group. However, support groups are not for everyone, and a few things have to be taken into consideration before you commit.
Finding and joining
If you live in or near a town or city, there’s a good chance that one or more support groups exist. Locating their existence is usually straightforward. Check online for local support groups, but also keep an eye out for posters in libraries, on noticeboards, or in clinics, hospitals, or waiting rooms.
Every group is different. Health professionals run some, but others are organised by patients or former patients. There’s often a small financial contribution toward the cost of beverages and snacks. Venues range from village and church halls to other people’s homes.
The structure and function of groups can vary greatly. Some are fairly loose in terms of structure, but most have guidelines with respect to start and finish times. There are often ground rules that participants are asked to follow — for example, keeping information confidential or not trying to fix another person’s problem. As to the conduct of meetings, these can also vary considerably. Some may require each participant to share information for, say, five minutes, before an open discussion follows. Others may have visiting speakers or organise events outside of the group. Some are big, some not.
What support groups aren’t
It’s important to remember that support groups differ greatly from group therapy. Group therapy is a form of psychotherapy run by one or more trained therapists. It’s quite possible for a depressed person to undertake group therapy and then look for a support group in order to maintain social contact and support. Put another way, a support group is not therapy. Of course, what results from being in a support group may feel very therapeutic, but unfortunately this is not always the case.
• Local groups are easy to get to, so you may be less inclined to miss meetings.
• Depending on the structure of the group, there may be one or more people immediately at hand to offer support and encouragement during difficult times.
• People who have shared your experiences can provide hope and share wisdom.
• Sharing removes the sense of isolation that often comes with depression.
• A properly run and organised support group can be a sanctuary.
• Possible embarrassment when meeting members outside of the group context.
• Less chance of anonymity and confidentiality.
• It may be emotionally overwhelming to hear other people’s stories and situations when you’re struggling with your own.
• Advice isn’t always useful or helpful, which can be confusing. Sharing personal experiences doesn’t necessarily mean the group is free from insensitive comments or negativity.
I’m in favor of support groups, because sharing experiences with others in a safe environment is key to their effectiveness. Because depression leaves so many people feeling vulnerable and isolated, simply getting out and meeting others can be helpful. Depression is also a process, and a journey of sorts. Hearing how others have learned to cope at various stages in that journey can be both reassuring and useful.
Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons of joining a group, the rest is up to you. It’s my belief that the majority of support groups are effective and helpful, but only you can judge. Online support groups provide an alternative choice.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.