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5 Unique Benefits of Joining a Mental Health Support Group

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 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, who were providing care for someone with a mental health issue. 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 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 comfortable releasing the pain behind my experiences. There was no need to hide, because no one was there to shame or criticize. All of us wanted and needed the same things — compassion, support, and suggestions for coping with the difficulties of living with a mental health condition.

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 just like you. 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).

1. 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 we’ve all been there.

2. I can just listen.

My group has an explicit agreement no one has to share. If it’s been a good week for my family, I might just tune in to what others are saying. If I’m feeling especially fragile, I can remain silent, gaining strength from spending an hour with understanding friends.

3. I hear about useful strategies.

Caring for someone who’s struggling can be a tough, exhausting job. While there aren’t any magical 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.

4. 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 clinically significant symptoms of depression.) Getting together with peers eases my loneliness and gives me strength to keep going.

5. I enjoy a good laugh.

Our group guidelines actually 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 groups that meet online. (My group has been getting together on Zoom since the pandemic began, and we’ve found that in some ways, it 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.

A quick search for support groups near you will give you many options. Here are some mental health organizations that sponsor networks of support groups to try:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Mental Health America (MHA)

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)

Please note: Mental health support groups cannot provide direct care, especially in a mental health emergency. If you or your loved one is in crisis, contact your nearest emergency room or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline (1-800-662-4357) or text 741-741 for immediate help, 24/7.

Getty image by KatarzynaBialasiewicz