Mixed Support Groups

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When a member of a family is diagnosed with a mental illness, that person and the rest of their family is usually in need of support. While others in the family, and friends, can provide advice and a shoulder to lean on, very often that is not enough. Having a supportive community that can understand and validate their concerns and experiences is critical.

Support groups result from the need for individuals to share their common experiences with others and as a result find the support and the understanding that enables them to deal with the illness and the accompanying problems. Although most often there will be a support group for the individual with the illness and another support group for those supporting that individual there is value to be found in a support group that includes both.

The Mood Disorders Association of BC (MDA) originated 22 years ago when a young mother was in a situation where her husband was diagnosed as being bipolar and she realized both of them needed support outside of the immediate family and friends. By sitting down in this mixed group of persons with the illness and their supporters, those with the illness found out they were not unique in their feelings and behaviours, and the supporters gained some insight into how their loved one was feeling, and gave them an approach to how to live with him/her and the illness.

A great number of the enquiries we receive for information are from parents, partners, siblings or friends of someone living with depression or bipolar illness. They do ask questions about the illness and the treatment but most often they ask, "Why." Why won't they take medication? Why do they lie around all day? Why won't they talk to the doctor about their symptoms?

Another common question is, "How." How do I deal with him when he is having a manic — or depressed — episode? How can I find out from the professionals how things are really going? People with these questions are generally encouraged to attend an MDA support group meeting.

By the time they arrive at the meeting they have usually found quality information about mental illnesses, treatments and recovery but the above questions remain unanswered. As one person put it, "It is like taking a course. I have the theoretical information but I needed the practical experience of how he is feeling and if I am doing the right thing at the right time."

When at the meeting they usually ask more questions. Should I be concerned about her behaviour and how do I deal with it? Should I be confronting him about his alcohol or substance abuse problem? How much abuse — verbal, emotional or physical — should I be overlooking? Are certain actions part of the illness or just bad behaviour?

Being able to ask these questions of a group who are living with the illness gives the supporter an opportunity to gain some insight into the thought processes their loved one is having and enables them to feel reassured about how to confront problematic issues.

When you speak to them after the meeting the "family" member generally has a feeling of empowerment. Not only have they received some answers to their questions — they have gained more knowledge. The realization that his or her situation is not exceptional and that mental illness can strike anyone regardless of gender, age, education or economic level, can be reassuring.

They leave encouraged, and often leave with a plan to deal with the individual and the current concerns. They are not as worried as to whether or not they are taking the right action or asking too much of their ill family member, and they know they can come back whenever needed for reassurance and support.

Patt Merrett, Mood Disorders Association of BC