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David Baxter

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Support groups: Share experiences about depression, other mental conditions
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Aug 14, 2007

Support groups can offer a good addition to professional treatment. Weigh pros and cons and learn how to find a healthy, helpful support group.
If you have depression or another mental health condition, joining a support group is often a valuable addition to professional treatment. Support groups can help you feel less alone, find new coping skills and motivate you to stick to treatment plans. They also can be a source of hope for recovery and a more enjoyable future.

Depression and mental health support groups abound. Choosing a support group can be challenging but ultimately rewarding. Here's a look at how support groups may help you and how to find one that suits your needs.

Understanding mental health support groups
A support group is a gathering of people who share a common condition or interest. Most mental health support groups focus on a specific condition, such as depression, substance abuse or eating disorders. Support groups are not the same as group psychotherapy sessions. Group therapy is a formal type of mental health treatment that brings together several people with similar conditions under the guidance of trained mental health providers.

Support groups, on the other hand, may be formed by a lay person with depression or another condition or by someone interested in it, such as a family member. In some cases, support groups may be formed by nonprofit organizations, mental health clinics or other groups, and they may be led by a facilitator or moderator.

Members of a support group share their personal journey with depression or other mental health conditions. They offer emotional comfort and moral support. And they may provide tips and advice based on their own experiences.

Support groups take place in a variety of formats, including:

  • In person
  • On the Internet
  • By telephone
Benefits of mental health support groups
Healthy support groups offer a variety of benefits, from the emotional to the practical. The benefits of support groups include:

  • Making connections. Meeting others with depression or another mental health condition may make you feel less alone or isolated. A safe and welcoming environment, filled with compassion and understanding, can also reduce any stigma you may feel over having depression or another mental disorder.
  • Improving your coping skills. Support groups offer the chance to draw on collective experiences. Others who have "been there" may have tips or advice about coping with your condition that hasn't occurred to you. Brainstorming with others may inspire even more ideas. For instance, swapping information about antidepressants can help you see how others handle side effects.
  • Getting motivated. Support groups can encourage you to seek professional treatment if you haven't yet. They also may encourage you to take a more active role in your treatment or stick to your treatment plan when you feel like giving up. And they may help you tap into community resources, such as housing or transportation assistance.
  • Finding hope. Sharing experiences and making connections can make you feel better about life in general. Seeing others make strides against depression or another mental illness may give you hope about your own future.
You may be nervous about sharing personal issues with people you don't know. So at first, you may reap benefits from a support group simply by listening. Over time, though, contributing your own ideas and experiences can help you get more out of a support group.

Sizing up mental health support groups
Support groups come in many forms. Which one is best for you depends on your needs and wishes.

For instance, perhaps you prefer a structured, moderated group, where you're more likely to find organized discussions and educational information. A moderator or facilitator can help ensure that all participants have equal time and that discussions stay on track.

Ask these questions about a support group to help find one that's best for you:

  • Is it geared toward a specific condition?
  • Is the location convenient for regular attendance?
  • What is the meeting schedule?
  • How long has the group existed?
  • Is there a facilitator or moderator?
  • What are the confidentiality guarantees?
  • Does it have established ground rules?
  • Is it sponsored by a reputable health care facility or organization?
  • Does it avoid false promises of quick cures?
  • Does it encourage you to continue your regular medical care and treatment?
  • What is the mix of participants, such as gender and age?
  • How many people usually attend?
  • What is a typical meeting like?
  • Does it charge reasonable fees, if any?
Plan to attend a few support group meetings to see how you fit in. If the support group makes you uncomfortable or you don't find it useful, try another one.

Remember that even a support group you've come to cherish can change over time as participants come and go. Periodically evaluate the support group to make sure it continues to meet your needs.

Finding mental health support groups
You've decided which kind of support group characteristics sound most appealing to you. Now how do you actually find a support group to join?

First, ask your doctor, therapist or mental health provider for a support group suggestion. If their ideas don't pan out, other ways you can find a support group include:

  • Contacting a local, state or national mental health organization
  • Asking your church, synagogue or other place of worship
  • Looking in your phone book under mental health, counseling or similar topics
  • Checking your newspaper for a listing of support resources
  • Contacting community centers or libraries
  • Getting recommendations from friends or family
  • Searching the Internet
Spotting red flags in mental health support groups
Although support groups can offer many benefits, not all support groups are good for you. Some may not have your best interests at heart. Be wary of information you receive about treatment or medications if it doesn't come from medical professionals. Remember that some information discussed in a support group may not be entirely accurate. If you have depression, for instance, don't be tempted to stop taking antidepressants without consulting your doctor simply because you may hear about a "natural" product to take instead.

Here are some red flags that may indicate the support group isn't in your best interests:

  • You feel worse after joining the support group
  • You feel pressure to try a certain kind of treatment
  • Other members encourage you to stop traditional treatment
  • Sessions are centered around complaining and negativity
  • Members insist that you reveal private information
  • It charges unreasonable fees
  • It requires you to buy certain products it endorses
  • It demands your allegiance to a cult-like leader
  • A few people dominate the discussions
Cautions for online mental health support groups
Depression and mental health support groups have blossomed on the Internet. And they can be just as valuable as those that meet in person. But keep in mind that while the anonymity of the Internet can be appealing, it can also be unsafe.

For one thing, the people you're interacting with may not be truthful about who they are and what health conditions they have. Some people prey on vulnerable individuals they meet online. Others may pretend they have certain illnesses, when they don't, which can be an indication of Munchausen syndrome. Also, make sure you don't let extensive Internet use lead to isolation from your in-person social network. Be careful about revealing your full name, address or phone number to strangers online, as you could open yourself to exploitation or harm.

Be sure to talk openly with your doctor or mental health provider about your participation in support groups. Many doctors today see the benefits of support groups, even those that are online. Don't be afraid to have an honest discussion about the groups you belong to.

Helping yourself with mental health support groups
Support groups for depression and other mental health conditions can offer a valuable addition to your medical care ? not a substitute. They may teach you new coping skills and encourage you to follow through on treatment. They can also broaden your social horizons and make you feel less isolated. Although opening up to others can initially be difficult, you may get more out of a support group than you thought you could.
 

Halo

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What a great article, especially these parts that stood out:

Plan to attend a few support group meetings to see how you fit in. If the support group makes you uncomfortable or you don't find it useful, try another one.

Remember that even a support group you've come to cherish can change over time as participants come and go. Periodically evaluate the support group to make sure it continues to meet your needs.

Thanks for posting it David :)
 
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I'll be attending a group for anxiety sufferers tonight for the first time. I'm feeling anxious lol.

Josée
 
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Halo

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That sounds exciting yet a little nerve racking at the same time Josee. I wish you good luck and let us know how it turns out.

Take care
 

ThatLady

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Hey, Josee! If you're feeling anxious, I can't imagine a better place to be than an anxiety support group. Everybody else is going to be anxious too, so you'll be amongst kindred souls! No need to explain yourself! :)
 
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Hey Halo and ThatLady! Made it to my first meeting last night but only three of us showed up. The weather was bad so that could explain the absenteeism. We grabbed some chairs from an adjacent room and sat in the corridor waiting for the facilitator and other group members.

We made the best of the situation and engaged in our very own little talk therapy session for 1.5 hours. We all parted feeling lighter. I'm glad i went and broke thinner ice with just a couple members for starters.

A few similarities we share is our age bracket, behavioral symptoms and a degree of sentivity that is rarely encountered in my everyday life. Birds of a feather "should" flock together lol

God bless,

Jos?e
 
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ladylore

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Hi Josee,

Did you go to the anxiety support group this week? If you did, how did it go?
 

HA

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Question about support groups

My understanding is that support groups are an ever changing evolving entity and that is a good thing. It is best if new members come on a continual basis and it is not always just the same 15 people sitting around the table, so to speak.

When someone leaves it is best to assume that for them the support of that particular group is no longer needed and again this is a good thing.

At what point do you start to consider that when someone leaves it may be a problem with the group that caused them to leave? How do you evaluate that?
 
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Hi Josee,

Did you go to the anxiety support group this week? If you did, how did it go?

Hi Ladylore!

I've been to the last one a couple weeks ago till their 14-week program starts up on Sept. 13. I'm looking forward to it.

I will let the forum know how it all goes...Thanks for inquiring. :)

God bless,

Jos?e

My understanding is that support groups are an ever changing evolving entity and that is a good thing. It is best if new members come on a continual basis and it is not always just the same 15 people sitting around the table, so to speak.

When someone leaves it is best to assume that for them the support of that particular group is no longer needed and again this is a good thing.

At what point do you start to consider that when someone leaves it may be a problem with the group that caused them to leave? How do you evaluate that?

Hi HeartArt! I dare think that most folks will let the group know ahead of time of their quitting the group. If someone leaves without saying good-bye, the reasons could be so many that i personally wouldn't find it productive to assume the reason why.

Obviously, I'd be concerned if something "dramatic" happened during group or was shared by this person with the group just prior to his or her quitting. I would hope that at least the facilitator could call on the person to see how he or she is doing.

God bless,

Jos?e
 
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ThatLady

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Sounds like your support group worked out well for you, Josee. Even though there were just a few of you, it gave you all a chance to get to know one another and to spend time together. Actually, that sounds like fun! I'm really glad it went so well. :)
 

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