National Alliance on Mental Illness Support groups bring together people who are experiencing — or have experienced — similar challenges or experiences. Examples include: bereavement, caregiving, cancer diagnoses, or mental health issues in loved ones. Like a bridge between participants’ shared challenges and resulting emotional health, support groups offer emotional support, understanding, coping techniques, and the comfort of shared personal experiences.
Support Group Formats
Formats for support groups vary and may include: face-to-face meetings, teleconferences or online mental health support groups. Most during this pandemic are offered via remote formats to ensure participant health. In NAMI CCNS support groups are peer-led or ( peer to peer ) lead most of our support groups, but a may also be led by a mental health professional facilitator or field expert. For example, our veterans support group is led by a specially trained psychologist.
Importantly, support groups are not the same as group therapy sessions. Group therapy is a specific type of mental health treatment that brings together several people with mental health conditions under the guidance of a licensed mental health care provider, while support groups often led by a layperson and offer online assistance via shared experiences.
Benefits of Support Groups
The advantages of participating in support groups can be significant, even life-altering. Since support group members have a common experience among them, they also share similar feelings, worries, treatment decisions and resulting side effects. Participating in a group means you will most likely spend time with people who have a common purpose and probably try to understand one another very well. As a result, you can talk openly and honestly about your experiences and what you’re feeling, gaining a sense of empowerment, belonging and understanding. This can mean feeling less lonely, anxious and judged. Many people believe they are alone in their struggles; realizing that many others are out there wrestling with similar issues is eye-opening. This realization usually brings with it tremendous relief that they are not alone after all.
It’s likely that you will also learn more about the issue or condition that you share, gaining specific information that you didn’t have before. Support groups offer practical tips and resources for dealing with specific concerns, and members talk to each other about their own success stories, coping mechanisms and strategies that helped them progress in their own journey of recovery. They might also share books or websites that helped them hone their coping skills. This, in turn, can help you deal with the repercussions of the issue, recapturing a sense of hope and finding new ways to cope.
Meeting and talking with other members of the group also allows you to stretch your social muscle; certain mental or physical challenges can lead to withdrawal from social situations, and support groups offer a safe haven for social interaction. What’s more, interacting with others and sharing stories can also give you additional insight into what brought you into the challenge that you are facing.
Just as you draw support and assistance from group members, you also are afforded the opportunity to help your fellow group members. You can contribute to others’ recoveries; and in doing so, you’ll find yourself feeling better about yourself. We derive pleasure from knowing we’ve helped someone. Be sure to support others in their own progress with encouragement and validation.
Potential Risks and Red Flags
Like many other positive and well-intentioned activities, there’s always the proverbial fly in the ointment. Occasionally, especially given current online formats, a member may become disruptive or may interrupt others and dominate discussions. Additionally, given recent incidents of ‘zoom bombing,’ an outsider may breach the group with nefarious intent. If the group is less than above board, members, or even the leader, may spread misinformation. Finally, confidentiality may be breached by fellow group members or the leader. However, all of our online mental health support group attendees are screened prior to them being in the group.
To reduce the risk of these types of occurrences, you should find a support group through reliable sources — your doctor or medical center, nonprofit organizations that advocate for mental or physical health or conditions, or the National Institute of Health and similar organizations. Steer clear of support groups that promise a quick or sure cure for a disease or issue, pressure you to purchase services or products, or ask for confidential personal information that you are uncomfortable providing.
How To Get The Most Out Of Your Mental Health Support Group
First joining a new support group can be initially disconcerting. If you are reticent to share your feelings, initially it may be uncomfortable to provide personal issues you’re having with people you don’t know. There is nothing wrong with keeping relatively silent at first, and you can benefit from simply listening. Over time, however, contributing your own ideas and experiences may help you get more out of a support group; and once you’ve found a group that ‘fits’ and works for you, be sure to attend regularly, making it a priority for your own health and well-being.
If the support group you have chosen doesn’t feel like a good fit for you, there is no shame in considering a different support group or even a different support group format. Support groups are not for everyone. If you feel that you aren’t getting enough out of your group, you may be better served with individual therapy. Many people find it helpful to use support groups as a supplement to their individual therapy, as a type of reinforcement.
How NAMI Can Help
At NAMI CCNS, our support groups and educational programs are all available through remote participation and attendance during the pandemic, and our programs are free for all participants. Please learn more at https://namiccns.org. We also feature a host of resources and related services that may be of use to you as you navigate your own health and well-being. You can also call the NAMI Helpline at