Is a support group the LAST place you want to go? If you are bipolar or think that you are, you probably do not want to spend any more time than you have to, thinking or talking about this diagnosis!
But what if I told you that support could be the most important aspect of getting and staying better? And support groups in particular, have benefits that often go far beyond what people expect. Here are my 7 favorite ways that support groups help:
1. They prevent isolation. Isolation can be one of the worst enemies for any mental health issue including bipolar. Isolation is associated with depression, risk of suicide, and an increase of many symptoms like too much sleep and negative thinking. But meeting with others and connecting can help you feel less alone in your illness. Many people say they feel better just by showing up to a group and seeing the others there.
2. People can catch you if you are slipping. Often it can be helpful to have other people get to know you because they may be able to tell if you are starting to "slip." Sometimes others can identify a "tell" that usually means someone is starting to get sick again. So while we can feel our own moods, bipolar has a way of getting out of control quickly so it is a good idea to have more people around who know you well and can help prevent things before they get bad.
3. Get information. In a support group you can learn from others just like you. You can get the inside scoop on what the illness is, how to treat it, and how to live with it. You can get real life info and recommendations for therapists or psychiatrists, and ask questions about anything from dealing with family to relationships to work.
4. Groups provide hope. Without anyone ever actually saying 'don't give up,' being around others and hearing their stories has a way of keeping people going. And you never know how your presence in a group can help someone else, even if you are not trying.
5. Practice socializing. Many people with bipolar also have many social anxieties and difficulties interacting with others. A support group is a place where everyone understands what it is like and getting to a group each week and talking is a great way to exercise your socializing skills. Very often people make friends or form a community out of the group and this can help your socializing life as well.
6. Make real friends. Bipolar support groups are one of the rare places where you can be real. Very often the normal niceties and small talk of social interactions may not be necessary. If someone says "hi, how are you?" you can say "Kinda down this week. Thanks" with total honesty. In addition, there is obviously no need to hide your illness and you can relax and be real with each other.
7. Learn strategies. You can pick up valuable "tricks of the trade" from others who have been through what you go through. They have strategies such as when and how to tell someone you are dating you are bipolar. Or when to start a new medication in case you get side effects. Or how to screen for a good therapist or psychiatrist.
So while getting to a group for the first time may feel daunting, many will tell you that attending a group regularly has changed their experience for the better.
How to find a support group: If you are in the US, you can check the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (www.dbsalliance.org) to find a group near you. If you are in NYC, you can check the NY chapter, Mood Disorders Support Group-NY (www.mdsg.org) for information.
by Li Faustino PhD