I’ll admit that the first time I entered the room, I was really, really scared.
It was my first time in a mental health support group. I felt uneasy, thinking about telling my family’s story to people I’d never met before. What if they judged me? How would I react if there was a long, uncomfortable silence after I’d shared a painful truth?
As it turns out, I didn’t have to worry. The people sitting around the table were friendly and welcoming. They reassured me that I didn’t have to say a thing, especially that first time. I could just listen, take it all in and decide when I was ready to take part.
This group had been created especially for people like me — people who were providing care for someone with a mental health condition. They had created thoughtful guidelines that made me feel more comfortable. For example, members pledged to protect each other’s confidentiality. They agreed to “share the air” so that no one person would monopolize the group’s time. The people guiding the conversation were peers, which meant they’d faced many of the same struggles I was bringing into the room.
It took time, but before long, my weekly support group became the place I felt safe releasing the pain behind my experiences. There was no need to hide because no one was there to shame or criticize. We all wanted and needed the same things — compassion, support and suggestions for coping with the difficulties of supporting someone with mental illness.
What Can a Mental Health Support Group Give You?
Unlike talk therapy, a support group offers you the chance to explore your thoughts and experiences with others who are going through similar challenges. While some groups are led by mental health professionals, many (like mine) are organized and run by peers. This gives people the chance to form a unique circle of caring that offers connection, comfort and perspective.
Here are five unique benefits I gain from attending a free, drop-in support group each week (or as often as I can make it):
- I don’t have to explain a lot. Because the people in my group understand what it’s like to live with mental health struggles, there’s an instant understanding between us. As we check in with each other, smiles and nodding heads reaffirm that we’ve all been there.
- I can just listen. My group has an explicit agreement that no one has to share. If it’s been a good week for my family, I might add to what others are saying. If I’m feeling especially fragile, I can remain silent, gaining strength from spending an hour with compassionate friends.
- I hear about useful strategies. Caring for someone who’s struggling can be a tough, exhausting job. While there aren’t any magic answers, I learn a lot from my peers, including ways to talk with my loved ones, set boundaries and work as part of their treatment team.
- I feel less alone. Isolation is a real risk for caregivers. (It may be one reason that 40% to 70% of people in caregiving roles have their own mental health issues.) Getting together with peers eases my loneliness and gives me strength.
- I enjoy a good laugh. Our group guidelines give us permission to burst into laughter when it feels natural. That might sound unexpected, but it’s a wonderful release. The seriousness of mental illness can feel incredibly heavy. Letting ourselves be honest and real lightens the burden.
How Can You Find a Group that Works for You?
Mental health support groups can be found in most communities. There are also hundreds of online groups. In fact, my group has been getting together on Zoom since the pandemic began, and we’ve found that in some ways, meeting virtually works even better for us.
Groups are hosted by mental health organizations, hospitals, clinics and community groups. Some are fully independent and run by group members. You can also explore the support groups offered by local NAMI affiliates.
Nearly eight years after that first anxious night, I see my support group as a true lifeline. Spending time with these thoughtful, caring people restores my balance, especially when worries about my loved one loom large. And for many of us who struggle with our own mental health conditions, the relief our weekly group provides is a double blessing.
Though you might feel reluctant at first, I encourage you to give your local support group a try.
Betsey O’Brien is an independent writer focused on mental health and its impact on individuals, families and communities. She lives in Oak Park, Ill., and is a past contributor to the Advocate, NAMI’s flagship magazine.