Self-help groups – an established support system

Self-help groups have been a popular type of assistance while coping with a wide range of problems. From alcohol and drug abuse to mental health issues or cultural support. There are, of course, self help or support groups for people suffering from depression. It is important to note that support groups are not the same as group therapy. To classify as therapy, a group gathering must meet a lot of criteria, there would be a professional (usually a psychotherapist) specifically trained to observe and interpret group interactions. General support groups, on the other hand, are less restricted in that sense. Attending such a group is not official therapy per se, but they have a therapeutic effect that shouldn’t be underestimated.

They are based on sharing personal experience in relation to the target of the group. The process is happening in a safe environment. They can be guided or not, but the evaluation and discussion of problems is led by the participants. Most often, this is a completely new experience to all participants. It involves a sufficient amount of discomfort and unease to share feelings of guilt, shame, worthlessness, sorrow, etc. Exactly because everybody takes part and gets to “feel uncomfortable” and then receive feedback, a great sense of empathy and comradery is created.

“Strangers” as ideal support

Some people would argue that it is better to simply share with a group of friends or family. In fact, being strangers to each other is more beneficial than it sounds. Potentially more uncomfortable, but more beneficial as well. The dynamic one would get while sharing with family can be very helpful but in a different way. Sometimes, conversations get stuck in the same closed circle where no new information or perspective comes to light. Other times, it is easier to discuss problems with people with the same experiences and not be afraid that someone is worried or overly-emotional. The type of feedback one would receive from people they are emotionally involved in is different than that from strangers. Some participants have bad family relationships and a self-help group would make them feel less alone with their condition.

People who suffer from mental health issues are sometimes ashamed and believe their situation is so bad, they are afraid to talk about it. Sharing that experience with someone going through the same thing, is an eye-opener because people get to see and hear a lot of stories and relate to most of them, feeling less of a “freak”. They can exchange ideas, gain experience in dealing with their illness, receive specialist information and help – and give it themselves. The self-esteem and self-confidence of the participants can be significantly increased. They increasingly get the feeling that they can deal better with the situation and are no longer overwhelmed by it. Feelings of helplessness are reduced.

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Inspiration from the group

Depression is most often associated with feelings of worthlessness, no self-confidence, weakness, etc. While in a self-help group, the participants get to be in two very therapeutic positions. On one hand, to be the one that shares and gets things off their chest and receives comfort. On the other, often unexpectedly for them, they can be an inspiration to someone else. Being thanked to, being encouraged by a stranger, feeling useful and appreciated: those are often powerful changes in personal narrative and eye-opening feedback that pushes self-acceptance and appreciation.  This experience has great powers and is difficult to find in a regular environment.

These positive changes increase in the course of time; the more frequently and regularly participants attend their group, the better the way they deal with the depression, the more cheerful and less isolated, the more self-confident, the more influential the participants feel. This is especially the case for long-term participants who show an increased resistance to stress and better composure. In fact, self-help groups can make a similarly important contribution to well-being as that of family or partners.

Despite all the positive support that a self-help group can offer, it is important to know that they are not an alternative to medical treatment. They are much more suitable as an effective tool for the mature patient to deal more successfully with his illness.

Volunteering

Perhaps the thought of a support group is too scary or there are no such groups in your area. There are different options where one can find a group to join and feel beneficial effects, even the protocol of a self-help group.

Joining a volunteering organization or volunteering at a place you find by yourself, can be a helpful and profound experience. In times of feeling weak and sad, giving your free time or skills to someone in distress can help raise self-perception and morale. Whether it is your local church, homeless shelter, soup kitchen or an animal shelter, it will provide some distraction from bad thoughts, will provoke action and empathy-driven interaction with people (or animals), who are also coping with hard times in their lives.

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