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8 Ways My Mental Illness Support Group Has Helped Me Grow

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I’m currently studying to become a counselor, and I keep feeling this pull between my professional and personal self. I have to seem composed and competent in my classes while struggling with mental issues on the inside.

A year ago, I decided that I needed to find a place where it was safe to just be myself. I nervously tried a peer support group through the National Alliance on Mental Illness(NAMI). I was surprised with how much I liked it. Going to NAMI support groups regularly really helped me. After a year of attendance, I have grown so much. That is why I encourage others to try a support group as part of their recovery.

Support groups have helped me in several ways:

1. They show me I’m not alone.

Before NAMI, I only had a few friends who struggle with mental illness. Often, I felt like I had “unusual” problems and no one understood me. After attending support groups, I’ve found people who understand me and who have been in the same position as me. It is so refreshing talking to people who “get me.” It makes me feel like I’m not alone.

2. They provide a safe space where I can be myself.

I usually feel like I have to censor parts of myself. I am usually on alert, deciding which parts of me are safe to share. I try to be positive so I am not the “depressing friend,” or try not to act “weird” so I don’t make things awkward. At support meetings, I can just be me. It is the most amazing feeling. I can let down my defenses. I can relax. I go to the meetings and tell the entire story about how I am doing right now and what is going on in my life. The people there just get me. And we are strict about confidentiality, what is said in group stays in group. I never worry about people talking about me outside of group.

3. I’ve learned how to talk about my mental illness.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to find the right words to talk about my feelings and experiences with mental illness. By going to support groups, I learn ways to better explain how I’m feeling. I am able to talk about my mental issues in a way other people can understand. We often talk about how to explain our mental illness to family members and how to be our own advocates in the workplace. I’ve learned how to talk about my illness in different situations.

4. They let me bounce find new ideas for different coping strategies.

It’s great to have people to talk to about coping skills. I have been having a lot of anxiety recently and members of my group have shared tips for how they handle anxiety. Sometimes it’s things they have developed on their own, but often it’s things they have learned in therapy or treatment.  Lately in group we were talking about which mental health apps help us. We’ve also talked about how to deal with depression and suicidal thoughts, among other things.

5. They give me a place to ask difficult questions related to my mental illness.

I’ve asked group members their opinions on having children when you struggle with mental illness. We’ve talked about alternative methods of treatment. We’ve talked about the benefits and downfalls of being on medication. And we’ve talked about how it is difficult to manage relationships along with our illnesses. It’s a place where it’s OK for me to talk about these hard questions and receive helpful feedback.

6. They help me be more gracious with myself.

I tend to be really hard on myself. I get easily frustrated with myself for not managing my illnesses as well as I would like. But at the support groups, people give me grace. They understand how hard things can be. When I come in angry with myself for having a panic attack, they offer me grace without judgment, letting me know that they understand how challenging anxiety and panic attacks are, and that it’s OK. Whatever state I am in that day, it’s OK.

7. They helps me learn about my growth.

It’s often hard for me to take a step back and see how I am changing. But the members of the support group notice how I am changing in the long-term. It’s really encouraging when a group member comments that I am doing much better than I was a few months ago. It’s incredibly helpful. And as I can see group members improving in their own mental health, it gives me hope that I’m improving as well. When I have a bad week, it helps me to have group members talk about how I have been doing really well but that it’s just a bad week and I will come out of it. I’ve come to group with many different problems, and later I’ve asked group members if I seem different. It helps to know how I appear to others while having different mental health issues.

8. They’ve allowed me to make good friends.

I have made some good friends through these support groups. It’s awesome to have friends who get me and who I can relate to. I’m grateful to NAMI support groups for bringing us together.

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Thinkstock photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Originally published: June 20, 2017
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