By Valerie Rice | November 3, 2020
I talk a lot about self help and what you can do to improve your life with mental illness and various roadblocks that pop up in your life path. One thing I often allude to is support groups, but I rarely go into detail about them. Support groups are one of the best ways to improve mental wellness (Harel et al, 2012). Not only that, but when engaged in properly, a support group has lasting effects on mental health and resilience. There are pros and cons when choosing this form of support, mainly because there are good and bad groups out there. So today I decided to break down the mysteries of support groups to help you navigate the murky waters and find a good fit for your situation.
THE GOOD, BAD, AND UGLY
The first thing you need to know is that not all groups are created equal. Anyone can create a gathering, slap a support label on it, and run people into the ground. Others have a long history of limited success but survive on legacy and misunderstanding. And then there are those that are quite successful but unknown because they are invitation only. What’s a person to do? Get a paper, let’s take notes. The notoriety of a group has nothing to do with its effectiveness. I bet everyone has heard of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Did you know that the success rate of this group is about 10% in the long term? Yeah…and many judges will order people to attend these unsupervised , potentially antagonistic and harmful meetings, because they are misinformed. Click here for more info on substance use. The lesson here is that your group needs coherent supervision.
If you go to church and see a sign for a support group in the basement, this is probably not a good idea. No, I am not knocking your religious beliefs. In fact, religion can be a great way for some people to build community and find comfort. But it is not the way to go for mental health treatment. Why is this? Well, faith based treatment is definitely not based in science. More often than not, the person running the group does not have the necessary training and experience to maintain a healthy environment. Additionally, faith based groups can cause psychological damage with their emphasis on guilt and self blame, especially if one of their cures relies on prayer. So, by all means, go to church for solace if that is your thing; do not expect to find mental health in the basement or chapel. What SHOULD we do then? Well, if you have one, your counselor or therapist is a great place to start. They will know who is running groups that would be most beneficial. NAMI is another option.
Not only should they have local offices near you, but they are also available online, so click here. Make sure you tell them what type of group you are looking for and that you require a structured, professionally run group. These are not always free, but they do accept most insurance plans and have a sliding scale for those in need. You really get what you pay for, and that is: Professionally run, appropriate content, screened participants.
CONTENT AND COMPOSITION
Let’s talk a little bit about group content and composition. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Pretend for a moment that you need a group for loss. Not all grief and loss groups are composed of people who can relate. The benefit of a professionally run group is that you will be placed with others who are experiencing similar issues. If, for example, you are struggling with divorce, you really do not want to be in a group of people experiencing grief over deceased loved ones. Not only are you not going to really relate to them, but you are also going to feel invalidated as group dynamics indicate your loss will be bulldozed over in favor of the “greater” pain. What you NEED is a group of people experiencing similar levels of grief, but not necessarily all the same type. A professional counselor or psychiatrist will be able to compose an appropriate group for you to join.
Not only will you be with the right people, but you will get information geared to your specific needs. And it isn’t just the information, it is also about the diversity of thought. A support group should never be an echo chamber. One of the benefits of a group is the variety of beliefs and opinions that can be bounced around in a controlled environment (Harel et al, 2012). Don’t worry, the group dynamics will be carefully thought out ahead of time so that no clashing personalities are together. That’s the beauty of a professionally built group. It won’t look like a Biden vs Trump mosh pit. Balance and harmony are key, especially since so much rides on building support together (Harel et al, 2012).
THE FINAL SAY
A good group can do wonders for your mental health. A bad group can destroy it. I truly hope that I have shed some light on this topic for you. However, beware large agencies pushing an agenda. There are some groups that may not be appropriate. If you are referred to a group without asking, and it doesn’t seem appropriate, don’t go. My daughter was sent to a DBT group against my wishes simply because she was a teenager. I personally despise DBT, which is beside the point, but I had asked SPECIFICALLY for EMDR to treat her trauma. When we refused the group, the counselor dropped us. So don’t go blindly anywhere, always ask questions and investigate. Make sure you are aware of what you are heading into.
Good questions to ask are: Who is running the group, how large is it, what is the focus, what is the method, how long is it, is it recurring, why do you recommend it for me? Make sure the answers you get are clear and concise. If they are not, you can bet they are trying to sell you something you don’t need or are not experienced enough to be facilitating. Odds are they are not the only game in town and you can keep looking. You SHOULD keep looking until you are satisfied. Why? Because YOU matter most. This is YOUR life and YOUR universe. Keep it that way.
Harel, Y., Shechtman, Z., & Cutrona, C. (2012). Exploration of Support Behavior in Counseling Groups With Counseling Trainees. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 37(3), 202–217. https://doi.org/10.1080/01933922.2011.646087