## Taking part in a support group can be one of the most helpful and rewarding components of a treatment plan, but not every area has one available. Lynne Taetzsch breaks down the step-by-step guidelines you need to know to help you start your own support group.
When I was in the middle of a deep depression six years ago, going to my local bipolar support group meetings was the best thing I did for myself. With advice, support and encouragement from group members, I found help in the mental health community and gradually got myself together. I still go to meetings regularly in order to maintain my own balance and help others.
Yet whenever I recommend going to bipolar support group meetings, I invariably hear from someone who lives in an area where there are no such groups available. There were none in Ithaca, New York, where I now live, until ten years ago when Carole Stone, along with a supportive friend, founded the Ithaca Bipolar Explorers, which is affiliated with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).
All it takes is one dedicated person to get a support group started, though when two or more work together, the burden is lighter. DBSA offers a complete package on how to start a support group affiliated with their organization, though you can start with an independent group and decide later if you want to affiliate.
The two basic things you need in order to start a group are a place to meet and a telephone number people can call to obtain information about the group. Our Ithaca group publishes both my and Carole's telephone number, and meets in our Women's Community Building. In general, a public space is better than meeting in someone's house, and it's best to avoid places that might have strong associations for some people, like a hospital or church. Check out community centers, schools, and other public spaces used by similar support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, etc.
If possible, find an advisor for your group in the mental health community. Having such an advisor may make it easier to find a space to meet as well. Having a psychiatrist or therapist as an advisor lends credibility to your project, and the advisor can help promote your group among the mental health community.
A support group is essentially peer -run, however, and very different from group therapy. The focus is on self-help, with the idea that all of us together know more than any one of us individually, and that each person is the ultimate authority on what will work for them.
Support group guidelines listed by DBSA include:
- Giving everyone who wishes to a chance to talk.
- Giving the speaker undivided attention, without interruption and side conversations.
- Making it clear that what is said at the meeting is confidential.
- Offering access to everyone without bias.
- Making the group a safe place to share by treating others with respect and compassion.
You may wish to write a short introduction stating the principles of your group, and read it at the beginning of meetings. A typical agenda would include introductions, a quick check-in to report how each person is doing, and then time for everyone to share how they are doing in more detail. You may also want to include time to discuss specific topics, or to invite speakers occasionally for educational purposes.
Once you've found a meeting place, picked your meeting days and times, and planned your first meeting, the next step is to publicize it. Call your local newspapers and radio/TV stations to find out how to get a community announcement printed or aired.
You may also want to make a flier to distribute to hospitals, community mental health centers, doctors' offices, and other public locations.
The important thing is to get started. You can fine-tune the program and find additional ways to promote it later. DBSA's start-up guide for support groups includes toolkits with samples such as fliers and notices, as well as a detailed plan of action.