Living with an illness like depression is no easy feat, and for those sufferers who have struggled to deal with it alone, or those who have had difficulty finding a medication that suits them, or even those who have battled to obtain the correct diagnosis, this has been made even harder. Ironically what makes depression so hard to treat is that because of the hopelessness and helplessness that people suffering from the illness feel, they find it very difficult to motivate themselves to get help. They doubt that anything will work for them.
The idea of a support group is often quite intimidating for people suffering from depression, especially people who do not have supportive and understanding family and friends. They feel they will be judged by the group and that then they will feel even more alone and worse off than they were before.
But this very sense of isolation that depression causes, is what support groups combat best. By merely providing a “listening ear”, a support group creates a haven of stability and security, where you can feel respected and cared for. You will realize by being with others who share your symptoms, that no one is judging you and that you are not alone. There is an immediate sense of acceptance and belonging.
There is another advantage of spending time with people who are suffering from the same illness as you, and that is encouragement and motivation. Seeing other people with the same symptoms successfully getting on with their lives despite their problems can be the best encouragement of all. Being around those who have recovered gives a sufferer hope – “I’ve been where you are, it will get better.” Knowing that someone else truly understands by virtue of having “been there”, can bring a sense of relief, as now your pain doesn’t seem so much of a solo burden. According to Pretoria psychiatrist Dr Annemarie Potgieter: “The value of a support group should not be underestimated. As well as offering support, they allow sufferers to gain knowledge about their disorders from people who know from experience.”
Anxiety is something that commonly co-occurs with depression, and attending that first meeting can be quite a nerve-wracking experience. Besides being judged, some people worry about being forced to disclose or about the confidentiality of the group. The Depression and Anxiety Support Group, which can be contacted for more information, telephone counselling, or referrals to mental health professionals or to any of the regional support groups around the country, Monday to Friday, between 8am and 7pm, and on Saturdays, between 8am and 5pm, on (011) 783 – 1474/6, believes in a more free approach to the way the groups are run. It is felt that the groups themselves should decide on the rules if any, but there is always an unwritten code of confidentiality within the group, and each member’s privacy and dignity is respected. The participation is voluntary with no commitments or forced disclosures. Everyone is given the freedom to draw on the strength of the group, as needed, and to extend strength to others when possible.
This social support can really help the recovery process, as can all the information, ideas and education gained through talking to others about their experience with the disorder. Coping tips and methods that can’t be found in books or standard treatments are shared.
One of the other problems found with the treatment of mental illness is that of non-compliance, where for various reasons the person stops taking their medication against the advice of their treating doctor. A recent study done by GAMIAN (Global Alliance of Mental Illness Advocacy Groups) found that participation in a support group can improve compliance to treatment for those with depressive disorders. A survey was conducted which revealed that those participating in support groups were both less likely to have stopped medication against advice and more likely to perceive fewer barriers to following their treatment regimen.
The respondents to the survey described the support group as helping them to either a “great extent” or to “some extent’ with: the motivation to follow a doctor’s instructions, communicating with the doctor, coping with problems and crises and by making treatment plans less complex.
Interestingly it was found out that most people (57%) did not learn of the availability of support groups until more than one year after their diagnosis. In addition 44% said that before attending their first meeting they had been fearful, unwilling or indifferent about attending. Clearly a lot of other people were also nervous about attending their first meeting!
Trying a support group is a fairly risk-free option that could lead to a number of benefits. A support group:
1. Gives you a voice and helps you to take control
2. Creates an atmosphere of understanding where no-one judges
3. Builds a common identity and a feeling of acceptance
4. Is confidential
5. Works against isolation
6. Allows the sharing of pain
7. Helps compliance
8. Provides information and referrals