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Why I Started a Health Support Group for My Classmates on Our Campus

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Although friends without chronic illness or pain can be an amazing support system, there is something special and necessary about people that truly understand you. They get why it was hard to shower yesterday and why you can’t finish the sentence you just started. They are able to laugh with you about the hardships and agree with things that you don’t have to explain.

Two and a half years ago I went on the study abroad program to South Africa — the trip of a lifetime that was also quite anxiety provoking due to my struggle with fibromyalgia and depression. Yet, there in South Africa, everything changed when I found out that two of the girls in my semester cohort also had invisible illnesses — one with rheumatoid arthritis and the other with Crohn’s disease. This changed everything. Finally meeting other people that could fully understand was life-giving. Although their illnesses are different then mine, there is still so much for us to relate on.

For the next year, my friend Kaylin and I dreamed of starting a support group on campus. The first thing that we knew was that it would be called “STRONG” — all capital letters but not an acronym. We thought that if there were three of us in a group of 40, there must be so many others on our campus of 6,000 students with invisible illnesses that we have no idea about. We decided that we wanted our group to be as inclusive as possible, making our mission statement: “STRONG is an on-campus club that functions as a support group for students with chronic pain or illness that interrupts daily life. We exist to encourage, empower, and advocate for better resources on campus.” Having a more general mission statement has allowed our group to extend to many students with various physical and mental illnesses.

When the dream became a reality, we used word of mouth to advertise our idea. Quickly, we had people telling us that they knew someone that they would relay the information to. Before we knew it, we had our first meeting with six other people we had never met before. There we talked about what we wanted the group to be and decided that we would meet once a week. The meeting was planned to last for an hour, and it lasted four. Everyone was so ecstatic to talk and laugh and cry about things that others couldn’t understand.

Since then, we have grown to a roster of over 30 students and have been able to provide support to many students, advocate for resources on campus and hold discussions about chronic illnesses and disabilities. We meet every week in a member’s apartment and spend between one to two hours every week together, mostly as a processing group. About once a month, we have a faculty or staff member of our university with a physical and/or mental illness come to host a discussion on a relevant topic. Topics of discussion include depression, self-care, mindfulness, advocating for yourself, employment, friendships and more.

STRONG is a place where safeness is prioritized — where people can be real and honest and vulnerable. STRONG is a place that is welcoming and confidential. STRONG is a place where all pain is valid. STRONG has drastically changed my life by giving me a place to meet others like me and is one of the most energizing parts of my life. Most of all, STRONG is a place where friends with big parts of our lives in common get together to relate.

If you are interested in starting a STRONG on your campus, contact me for more information on our foundations and group resources:

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Originally published: November 3, 2017
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