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NATIONAL SURVEY CONFRIMS EFFICACY OF PARTICIPATION IN A SUPPORT GROUP

Results Of A Survey Of The Anxiety Disorders Support Group In South Africa

The demand for information and rights as consumers has led recently to a growth in the number of consumer advocacy groups in South Africa. Medicine, and particularly psychiatry, has been an area in which considerable growth has taken place. This is largely due to the substantial stigmatisation still surrounding all forms of psychiatric illness. Increasing public awareness and providing accurate information to sufferers and their families and friends thus becomes of paramount importance. Not only do consumer advocacy groups fulfil this role, but they likewise provide valuable assistance in selecting appropriate professional treatment.

One such group, the Anxiety Disorders Support Group (now the Depression and Anxiety Support Group), are, in many ways, an example of how successful a consumer advocacy group can really be. Initiated in 1995, the support group has swiftly developed into one of the largest groups of its kind in the world. The group has instituted a number of highly successful media campaigns and educational programs, highlighting the nature of affective disorders and in so doing, dramatically reducing the amount of stigmatisation associated with such disorders. The support group currently co-ordinates over 95 regional support groups, has an active membership of 11 500, facilitates the continuing education of mental health professionals, undertakes numerous outreach projects, conducts educational programs for schools, social workers, etc., and provides continual support to the public with its telephone counselling service, brochures and comprehensive information regarding affective disorders and referral service.

Although anecdotal evidence would undoubtedly confirm the efficacy and success of the support group, a team of researchers nonetheless sought to empirically substantiate the evidence which suggested that the support group was considered highly valuable by many of its members. Thus, in collaboration with the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, Dan Stein and Nompumelelo Zungu-Dirwayi of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Stellenbosch and Michael Berk of the Department of Psychiatry, University of the Witwatersrand, undertook a survey study of members of the Anxiety Disorders Support Group, in order to establish whether the support group had been effective in providing reliable and valuable information to consumers, and whether this had impacted on the quality and efficacy of the treatment they received.

A questionnaire, designed to assess members' experiences of the support group, was distributed to 1000 randomly chosen members of the support group. Results of the survey were more than convincing. An overwhelming majority of members felt that the support group had provided them with support and guidance which had significantly helped in their recovery. 88.2 % of respondents definitely agreed that the group had provided useful information on symptoms, while 88.4% of members felt that the support group brochures and pamphlets were helpful. Other significant findings suggested that the support group provided: useful information on medication (71.9%); useful information on psychotherpay (66.2%); support and understanding (71.4%); counsellors who were supportive (73.8%); an informative newsletter (88%); beneficial educational meetings (65%) and invaluable regional support group meetings (56.9%). In fact, respondents experienced the support group in a favourable manner on every item of the survey, with a majority either answering definitely agree or somewhat agree.

Of further interest was the finding which suggested that 41% of respondents did not initially seek treatment because they "didn't know that my symptoms were a part of a disorder known to professionals". The fact that such a large percentage of sufferers are initially unaware of the clinical status of their illness highlights the need for public awareness campaigns such as those of the support group. A distressing finding indicated that 44% of respondents had at some point stopped medication because of side effects. However, it was also shown, that almost half (21%) of these respondents had, at this point, contacted the support group asking for advice about the side effects.

In conclusion then, the survey highlighted the many areas in which a support group can provide valuable assistance and support to sufferers of mental illness. It provides substantial evidence for the role of support groups as suppliers of support and understanding, crucial information about affective disorders, and encouraging compliance with appropriate interventions. The survey provides valuable empirical support for consumer groups and their place in the early diagnosis and successful treatment of psychiatric illnesses. Ultimately, the consumer advocacy group aids in the restoration of dignity and rights of those afflicted by these illnesses, and thereby becomes a worthy partner in the treatment process.