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So You’re Thinking About Signing Up for a Support Group…

Arguably worse than recovering from a traumatic experience or mental illness is the feeling that you are alone in the process. One of the most defeating elements of a mental illness is the burning IDEA that nobody understands. What if, however, there was a distinct group of people who were going through the exact same thing as you are? Cue support groups. Support groups typically involve one to fifteen patients who are struggling with a specific struggle, personal issue, or mental illness. They typically meet weekly for about an hour or two, during which a trained psychologist(s) leads them through discussion and exercises. Meetings provide both perspective and accountability while aiding the healing process through inclusion and conversation. That being said, like any form of therapy, support groups have tremendous benefits at the expense of some risks.

When They’re Good

Support groups act as a mental health network. We are social by nature, and thus flourish when we find ourselves surrounded by others. Support groups not only provide a sense of inclusion, but a sense of relief as well.

On the hearing end, support groups serve as a way to look at your own struggles in a different light. They show that others are struggling with the same problems as you, and provide concrete evidence that it is possible to overcome them. On the talking end, it allows individuals to release a huge weight off their chest and receive feedback and potential solutions in return. The more diverse the group, the more effective the results. Seeing how others from different backgrounds and entirely unique personalities and perspectives handled a struggle that you thought you were alone in is eye opening and relieving. The sense of belonging that results can make an individual who otherwise feels isolated feel valued and included.

Group therapy also implies accountability. Goals and steps that are laid out in meetings carry more incentive when they are established in a group setting. Sharing progress with other patients provides a stronger drive to fulfill said goals and encourage steps you may not have even come up with yourself. Encouragement and recognition can feel significantly more powerful when they come from another individual who has experienced the same sorrows and challenges. Positive feedback may even make it easier for you to eventually discuss your battle with friends and family members outside of the group.

Sharing both successes and failures provides a huge learning opportunity. While individual, professional therapists may not have specific experience with what you are going through, every member of the group has experienced your struggle to some extent. Learning from their healing process is invaluable. It may sound trivial, but group therapy also forces you to leave your bed. Honest communication with several people finetunes social and conversational skills that might otherwise be lost in individual therapy.

When They’re Bad

Despite the lower price tag and support, group therapy isn’t for everyone. Honest and frequent sharing is a pivotal part of the process, and if you are not comfortable with doing so, it is unlikely that you will reap the benefits. While therapists are legally obliged to maintain confidentiality, group members are not. Confidentiality is highly encouraged by group leaders, but this may not be enough for you. If someone you know is also in the group, it can be understandably uncomfortable to talk about something so personal. In “open groups,” members are allowed to come and go at will. This can change the group relationship and also disrupt the benefit of comfort and familiarity.

Inclusion works both ways. An unfulfilled sense of belonging can make you feel even more alone, and can cause individuals to want to appear stronger or otherwise more desirable rather than actually utilizing the group to heal. The intamacy of individual therapy does not exist in group therapy. This can insinuate personality clashes as well as potentially overlooking a high-risk individual. Group therapy is NOT appropriate for patients who intend to harm themselves or others. Aside from the obvious danger, hostile and aggressive group members upset the welcoming and safe environment that support groups are designed to create.

Logistically, in order to be successful support groups should be local and organized. A trained, designated leader needs to be present at all meetings, and too great a distance might lead to skipped meetings. The close proximity of others in the group might also provide the comfort of having support nearby at all times.

Online Support Groups

You can do almost anything online – if you wanted to, you could buy 25 metric tons of chicken feet (and that’s the minimal order quantity). Online support groups provide 24/7 support that weekly group meetings cannot for a lower price, or often no cost at all. Some individuals find the anonymity of expressing their struggle to an online group easier than conveying their grievances to family members they do not feel will understand. That being said, online groups can be a platform for exclusion or even further suffering. Online therapy groups are typically reserved for a specific challenge – the loss of a child, an eating disorder, marital troubles, etc. There may not be a specific category for which you identify with, which wrongfully can make you feel even more alone. Additionally, if you do find the appropriate support group, hearing others’ suffering over such an impersonal platform can create even more discouragement rather than healing. The impersonal aspect also makes it more difficult to develop close relationships and friendships that can occur in group therapy.

Do I advocate for support groups? Not necessarily. They are an incredible, typically more affordable alternative to individual therapy at the expense of lacking the intimacy and bonding that one-on-one support provides. Support groups are an incredible tool for personal issues such as anger, shyness, low self-esteem, and loneliness. They are also widely beneficial to those who have lost a loved one. The greatest aid comes from a combination of both individual and group therapy. At the end of the day, keeping everything bottled inside only harms you – support groups are an amazing tool to help release a little one day at a time.

You Deserve To Be Happy

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Zoe Tierney, B.A. Psychology
Zoe Tierney, B.A. Psychology

Zoe Tierney currently resides in Palo Alto, California. She is a Creative Writing Minor and a Psychology Major with an emphasis on Social Psychology and Child Development at Colgate University. After University, Zoe plans on attending graduate school with the intention of entering the field of adolescent psychology as a counselor or occupational therapist.

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