A few months ago, a spokesperson for a “mental health advocacy organization” likened support groups to appendectomy patients performing surgery on one another. I said nothing at the time, but the remark and all the errors it entails have led me to consider how my support groups help me.
The claim that support groups seek to replace medical treatment is erroneous. DBSA South Orange County, like many other support groups of its kind, has issued a disclaimer indicating that our peer-run support groups are no substitute for a doctor’s care. This fact by itself defeats the glib assertion made above. We don’t try to cure people of their depression or their bipolar disorder. There are people with better skills for doing that than we.
What we offer is a safe place where people can talk about their struggles with the illness. Doctors and therapists know how to treat, but they don’t know what it is like to undergo treatment. They don’t encounter stigma. They have not experienced the catastrophic loss of community that can happen when one is diagnosed with a mental illness, when friends and family members run away.
The members of the group remind each other that we are not alone, that there are other people who feel the same grief. You can’t imagine how much that means. When you struggle alone with only a psychiatrist and a therapist for companions, you can feel that no one understands you. Yes, you have tried to talk about it, but it is as if you are speaking a different language to someone an ocean away. What happens in a support group is that you find people who share a common language occupying the same room. You arrive in the group, you sit down, and you hear others tell your story. You see eyes that have seen what you have seen, ears that know the voices that have plagued you. Just as you have decided to give up, you find reason to go on.
At their worse, support groups turn into whiny affairs. But more often they bring an end to a long loneliness. You are not alone, we repeat to newcomers. These illnesses are survivable. We have worked with our doctors and our therapists and here we are. We are getting better.
What have I learned from support groups?
- I have come by many coping strategies that can distract me while I am waiting for an episode to pass.
- I have learned when to stick it out while I am waiting for my medications to take effect and when to ask my psychiatrist for a change.
- I have learned the importance of being a partner in my own treatment, not a potato who lets things be done to him without understanding the reasons why.
- I have learned to speak up when I have concerns about the course of my treatment.
- I have learned that recovery is more than the medication, that achieving stability requires a number of different strategies.
- I have learned to take my medications as prescribed and not to play with my doses without consulting my psychiatrist.
- I have learned the choices that I must face when I interact with outsiders — when to tell them that I have the illness and when to hold my tongue.
- I have found people who understand how frightening it is to hear some news pundit talk about how all the mentally ill should be locked up and force medicated.
- I have found a family where I can be myself without having to hide the illness, a family that will not abandon me when I go into episode.
- I have found friends who will not wince when I tell them what is passing through my mind.
- I am no longer alone.
- Having bipolar disorder has not ended my life.
Support groups are no substitute for medical treatment. But medical treatment is no substitute for a network of understanding friends.