Like most, I found being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder completely bewildering. On the one hand it was a relief to finally find out that my life was coming apart at the seams not because I was a weak person who couldn’t cope with everyday life, but because I had an illness that had become unmanageable. But even though I had the diagnoses, and read everything I could lay my hands on, I felt that there was a key piece of the puzzle missing that made it impossible for me to really understand how it all fitted together. At the time it felt like I had to somehow fit my ‘self’ into the illness, instead of the illness into my ‘self’. I tried to discuss it with my psychologist, but to me it didn’t feel like he thought that I really had Bipolar Disorder. I might have only imagined that, but regardless I couldn’t talk about it. I eventually stopped seeing him because I didn’t feel like we had anything left to discuss. I felt lost, alone and unable to communicate or figure out what it meant to have Bipolar Disorder.
I had heard about the support group in my area, but hadn’t had the courage to attend. I was anxious about going by myself, but had no one to go with me. My family lives very far away and at the time I didn’t have any other support, so I had to talk to someone. Walking into my first meeting was absolutely terrifying. I wasn’t at the point where I openly discussed my illness yet, and I felt embarrassed and way too vulnerable. I didn’t know what to expect and was sure that the people were going to judge me. Luckily I was wrong.
These days I actually look forward to going to group and even when I don’t really feel like it, I go anyway (that’s usually when you need it the most). I have met some amazing and inspirational people and have made great friends that I meet with outside the meetings. Being able to talk to people who can identify with what I go through, think the way I do and have experienced the same frustrations I have has really made life easier. Although I believe that Psychologists have their place, and I still see my Psychiatrist monthly, attending a support group has helped me a lot more than therapy (in terms of understanding and dealing with my illness). I know that I now have people I can call on who will understand and a place to go where I can share my load, get help and advice and even laugh at myself. I also find it very rewarding to be able to pass what I have learned on to others.
Research has proven over and over again that support groups have many benefits for their participants, whether it is for mental health issues, weight loss, addiction, chronic illness etc. These groups don’t have to be led by professionals in psychology or psychiatry and are more often led by ‘regular’ people who share the condition and therefore know what other participants go through. I found this quotation that sums it up:
“Mutual support groups, involving little or no cost to participants, have a powerful effect on mental and physical health… The psychological and physical health importance of this diffuse community is striking. The self-help movement, both in face-to-face and virtual arenas, has tremendous therapeutic potential.” (from American Psychologist feature article “Who Talks?: The Social Psychology of Illness Support Groups” by K. P. Davison, J. W. Pennebaker, & S.S. Dickerson, (55) 2, pp. 205-217, 2000.)
According to the Mayo Clinic, support groups hold the following benefits for its members:
- Feeling less lonely, isolated or judged
- Gaining a sense of empowerment and control
- Improving coping skills and sense of adjustment
- Talking openly and honestly about your feelings
- Reducing distress, depression or anxiety
- Developing a clearer understanding of what to expect with your situation
- Getting practical advice or information about treatment options
- Comparing notes about resources, such as doctors and alternative options.
For more information read this article. It’s about stress management, but I think the principles are the same.
Thanks to the Internet we don’t have to only rely on face-to-face support groups. Some people don’t have groups in their areas, some prefer to stay anonymous and others would rather express themselves in writing or to strangers. You can even belong to a few different groups if you want. The point is that these days it is easier to find a support group or forum that will suit your particular needs.
I’m sure support groups don’t work for anyone and it might take a few tries before you find something that works for you, but I would definitely recommend that you give it a try.
I only have a few support groups listed under Useful Resources, but please share yours and I will add it to the list.