Over the past six years, I have belonged to two support groups, and they've both been helpful in different ways. In my bipolar support group, I was one of the sufferers, though our group also welcomed family members and friends. My Alzheimer's support group was for caregivers of those with Alzheimer's or other types of dementia. Both groups helped me immeasurably.
If you are thinking about joining a group or starting one in your community, here are some tips on what to expect and how to get the most from your group.
Sharing Your Story and Problems:
Other than hiring a therapist, a support group offers the perfect place to talk about ourselves and our problems. We'll be with people who are going through the same things we are. They know what we mean when we talk about sleepless nights, depression, anxiety, guilt–whatever it is we're suffering at the moment.
In my bipolar support group, there are many varieties of experience because no two people suffer the exact same set of symptoms and responses, but we have enough in common to understand what the other person is going through. In my Alzheimer's support group, members can understand what it's like to care for a father or mother with dementia on a day-to-day basis better than another family member who might visit twice a year.
The flip side of telling your own story, of course, is respectful listening to other people's problems. This is a gift we offer each other in support groups. We listen with empathy. We respect others' points of view, acknowledge their emotions, and allow them to express whatever it is they are feeling.
Getting and Giving advice:
Support groups are a great place to get advice from those more experienced than we are, and to share our own experience when it's called for. In my Alzheimer's support group, we shared information about medications, assisted living facilities, home health aides, and nursing homes. Some of us were caring for our relatives at home, while others were supporting them in local facilities, depending on the stage of the disease.
In my bipolar group, we freely talk about the medications we are taking, the side effects we experience, and the benefits or lack thereof. Our group is in a small city, so we also offer advice about local psychiatrists and therapists, if a member asks.
The key to giving advice in a support group is simple: only give it when it's asked for. Sometimes members just want to vent their feelings and to explore their situation out loud to a group of supportive listeners. Very often, we can't really solve another person's problem, but we can listen attentively.
If you're not sure whether to give advice or not, it's best to simply ask. After you're in a group for a while, however, you'll usually get a feel for when it's appropriate and when not.
Respecting Differences of Opinions and Philosophies:
Think of a support group as a place to share ideas while respecting differences. One member may be a believer in alternative medicine. Another may think faith is the best cure. One night at my bipolar meeting, a new person said aggressively that everyone, without fail, should be cured through mainstream medicine. She got very upset when other members expressed different points of view. An argument ensued, and the new member never came back.
One of the benefits of going to a support group is to hear different experiences and opinions. You don't have to follow anyone else's advice, but it is important to listen respectfully to all.
Along with listening and sharing is the necessity for confidentiality. In order for everyone to feel free to speak what's on our mind, we have to be confident that what we say in that room will remain there.
Most groups have a list of principles and procedures they follow, even if the list is understood rather than part of a written or stated document. Regular members will sometimes revisit this list and revise it when necessary. In my bipolar group, we had a problem with one member who monopolized the conversation, so we instituted some simple rules about timing in order to give everyone a chance to speak.
Support groups take some effort to maintain, and usually there are one or two people who take responsibility for this. Some support groups are sponsored and run by a paid facilitator, as our Alzheimer's group was. Others, like my bipolar group, are run by the members. Several of us take turns facilitating, and we share the administrative tasks like notifying the newspapers to list our meeting times.
As you become more familiar with your group, you may want to share in its administration. Over time you may also find, as I have, that your group is not only a source of comfort and advice, but lasting friendship as well.