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Depression

Experiences of support groups for depression

Various mental health charities and organisations run local support groups throughout the UK. Support groups provide a forum for people with depression to meet, talk, share experiences and learn more about the condition and its treatments. There is usually a facilitator to help the group run well. One advantage of gaining support from such a group is that you can still attend even if you feel very unwell: you do not have to contribute anything since others will understand how you feel. Some people also use Internet based support groups and chat rooms (see 'Self-help resources for depression').

As one older man said, depression is an “exceedingly isolating” condition and so breaking through that isolation is very helpful. Many people we talked to eased their isolation considerably by attending a support group in their area. For instance, one man who was very isolated by his depression was able to make a friend at a support group for people with chronic fatigue.

 

While feeling very isolated, he has found a friend through a chronic fatigue (ME) support group.

While feeling very isolated, he has found a friend through a chronic fatigue (ME) support group.

Age at interview: 35
Sex: Male
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But in the last year I have joined a Depression Alliance group. I've certainly done much more than I used to as I say, and they... that was over in sort of [area name] which is sort of near.... nearby. They've helped somewhat and I've also joined an ME support group, at which I've met a nice young lady who's actually just got married. But, called [name], and, [name] her name now [name] I think her name. But and she too you know.... she's quite unwell and she's seen a professor, not the same professor I saw, and has told her that you know she's an outpatient at the moment the same as I am, but she'll have to go in as an inpatient if she gets any worse you see or... Which I... I hope not of course for her sake. And but so I saw her a few months ago, that was like this year, 2003, but I haven't seen her of late because she doesn't want to take any phone calls and but we will be keeping, I will be keeping in touch with her. So I have at least sort [laugh] of found a friend in her, but as I say [clears throat] the problem really you know I have a quite a few issues at the moment of not having any real company.

Some people who did not have a support group in their area actually became involved in organising a local group. One woman (who had become aware of the remarkable sense of solidarity between patients from very different backgrounds in hospital) was asked by her social worker to help organise a support group. She benefited from the experience in that she felt useful, helped others and felt she was giving “something back”.

 

Becoming secretary for a new local support group helped her to feel useful, link with...

Becoming secretary for a new local support group helped her to feel useful, link with...

Age at interview: 60
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 27
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One day she (my social worker) knocked on the door and said, 'We're going to start a MIND group, a sort of MIND group, would you be interested in joining us?' So I got into that and because of my secretarial skills I was immediately taken on as a secretary of the working group. And, and that's how it went. And again because you're' becoming friendly with the professionals as it were, [pause] and [pause] at a point where you, you were starting to give something back, starting to help other people. And that made me realise how important it was to help other people. And I think that gives you an uplift doesn't it. And that's really what happened, that's, that's how I got back into normality.

So being involved in the MIND, and what it did for you specifically is it re-engaged your secretarial skills and you helped others?

It did. I suppose, you know I wasn't conscious of it, but I suppose, it gave me back confidence in my skills, that I hadn't lost them. Because I've been [pause] away for quite some time at that point [pause] what else did it do for me? Well I suppose it made me feel useful too, that I was of use. Again, I didn't consciously think of it then, but it will have, will have done that.  And I do think that the idea that it was benefiting somebody else as well, that it wasn't just 'self'. Which is a good thing because you do turn in on yourself. And it made one sort of stop being focused on just oneself. And look outwards towards other people. That was an important step I think in that.

The people we talked to benefited greatly from participating in support groups. Some began to build confidence about being with other people, which then helped them to participate in other social activities. Others learned about local resources, such as day centres, from support groups.

What many valued most was the sharing of experiences with others who understood what depression was like. For instance, one man gained a lot from the equality and bonding with his support group. Another man could work through his feelings of being different, as well as concerns about how to cope with social pressures' in going to a support group, he discovered that people with depression were usually sensitive and intelligent, rather than 'missing something' as he had originally thought. This discovery helped him to be more accepting of himself. One woman discovered that it was the mutual support over a period of years that was important to her.

 

Was comforting to be with people who knew what he was talking about, he bonded with the group,...

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Was comforting to be with people who knew what he was talking about, he bonded with the group,...

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 45
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I went to this group, it's not therapy but the Depression Support Group, I felt really great to be surrounded by people who spoke my language. Because when I'm talking to the therapist, it's him there and me here the patient. 

But in this group I felt that we were more equal, you know because we all had gone through the same thing, so I felt almost an immediate bond, if you like, with all those people though I'd never met them before. And I don't know who I'm going to meet the next time I go, I presume some people are going to be there because there is a core of people and I presume that some people, the newcomers, I'm guessing that probably some or one of them would be terrified, and not come back again, you know. 

But I felt very comfortable so, you know the advice I give to people is to try some kind of support group, you know people who are going through the same process as you are. Because again, when you're going through this process alone, you think that there is something utterly wrong with you and that it's just you on earth going through that thing alone. And then when you meet other people you say, you know I have the same problems.

 

Was pleased to discover that members of his support group were sensitive, intelligent and...

Was pleased to discover that members of his support group were sensitive, intelligent and...

Age at interview: 35
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 17
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I was very unhappy with Western culture, and when I talk to people in self-help groups, I very often find that a lot of the attitudes that I talk about, I've said about, you know wanting to get ahead and have a conventional family life and everything. Everyone's got to own car, and all this kind of stuff is just something that I collectively despaired of with other depressed people, that it's that kind of social brutalisation, almost, and all the expectations. The expectations you have as well, or other people have of you. That really' you can't cut yourself off from them because they exist but you can assert your right to be different. Yes, but anyway I'm getting far too philosophical now, I think.

And it was quite nice realising that these people did suffer from depression, and yet they were very intelligent and sensitive people. And you know, there's obviously no contradiction between the things but in fact, you know, you spend all that time feeling, looking at other people and I've felt I was worse than, you know, I felt I was'. and I felt I was missing something. I didn't have something that the rest of the human race had. But in fact, it turned out almost to be the opposite. That in fact, you know we have a certain sensitivity, I think, being depressed maybe.
 
 

Found that attending a support group and gaining its support over a period of 2 years was what...

Found that attending a support group and gaining its support over a period of 2 years was what...

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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[Laughs] About that time I heard a radio programme where they were talking about self-help groups. And I suppose this was really meant to be because the person was saying, "To benefit, really benefit from self-help groups, you really need to stay with it for 2 years," and I thought, "Rubbish, 2 years, no it won't take that long." But in fact on looking back a little bit, you know a few years down the line, I thought, "Yes 2 years is about right", not necessarily for the life of a group, for an individual. Now a self-help group isn't group therapy but it is very therapeutic.

How so?

By sharing, by sharing... well people meeting with a shared interest. You put something in, take something out. There are people there who, they won't say, "Pull yourself together, pull your socks up, what have you got to be depressed about?" There is none of that. The mutual support is just unbelievable.

Some problems were reported with depression-related support groups. They tend to rely on the energy of one or two people, and so they can start up and close down according to the priorities of those people. Although support groups frequently cover interesting topics, sometimes people find that members can take issues out of context, such as discussions about the right medication to take or potential side effects.

 

Says that people can sometimes take discussions of personal experiences out of context in support...

Says that people can sometimes take discussions of personal experiences out of context in support...

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 32
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And when I went to the self-help group a lot of the people say that I helped them by just talking in the group. And that's it.  I can't help myself so how could I help them!  But there is a lot of them they are frightened when they hear about medication and I've no....I heard somebody like my friend, she went on the carbamazepine and her hair fell out but I did nay say " [Humph] Oh I'm going to tell the doctor I've got to get off that in case my hair falls out". 

And sometimes at a self help group that's what happens. You can never but that.... Sometimes people.... hear you talk about your personal experiences with them, they say they feel like that or whatever but they can nay say, "Oh I'm going to ask the doctor can I get that".

Support groups do not appeal to everyone - several had noticed that some people had only ever come along once. Groups can also get bogged down in discussions of negative experiences - one woman, who did not find the discussion in her local support group helpful, left with the impression that “they all seemed worse than me”. Support groups for people with manic depression can have a lot of humour, but depressed people might have trouble coping with people who seem too 'high'.

 

People can go to support groups even if they are not feeling great since others understand, but...

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People can go to support groups even if they are not feeling great since others understand, but...

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 22
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I'm saying, I wasn't the only person who felt that way [laughing]. Well, yes, so it was sort of like self-help groups in the, well it was the Manic Depression Fellowship, a local group, but I think now it's called Mood Swings Fellowship and they're not the same'. Yeah, I think the ones where you go in person is' rather than just sort of going out with a group of friends or acquaintances or whatever, if you go to a group for depression, people, you know, a lot of the groundwork is already done, plus you don't have to make any effort there. You might have somebody who's not feeling so good one week who doesn't really, you know, doesn't...is not able to contribute a lot but it's nice for them, and it's not judgmental and you can share experiences, you can just have quite a lot of humour with things. 

Why is that important, the humour?

The humour. Because you all, I think you all know, you've all got that in common, really. I think I'm probably thinking more of a manic depression one. I've never actually been to a depression group, I have to say, not in person.

In manic depression there's humour around?

If people are a bit manic, it can set people off. On the other hand it can also not be very nice for somebody who's depressed. If you're depressed you don't want somebody ...who's high. But there again, if you're the high person you can't understand why everybody's not joining in. But if you have a good facilitator then they can help, which we did, I have to say.
 

Skilled facilitation of the support group is the key to avoiding situations where the group gets caught up in unproductive discussions. It was suggested that people look for a group that has a skilled facilitator. Some facilitators are also attempting to move beyond the mere comfort of sharing of stories. For instance, one facilitator we talked to was keen to incorporate the sharing of various healing techniques to combat depression.

 

This facilitator of a support group wants to encourage his group to master healing techniques as...

This facilitator of a support group wants to encourage his group to master healing techniques as...

Age at interview: 69
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 39
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Because the difficulty is Damien that the [support group umbrella] is not a professional body, and these self help groups which are under the umbrella of the [name], none of us are professionals, and there are some pretty intelligent people, but they're not health professionals. And I have to be a bit careful. I have to be careful leading the group that I'm not, I'm not being a therapist you see. 

On the other hand, I am being a therapist, I'm using it' I don't really want to run a group just to comfort people with depression, I don't want to. If I wanted to do that, any of them could be the leader of the group if that's all it is. Because all they do is just meet, swap stories and think well it's nice being with people that understand. Well of course it is, and it can even be very therapeutic in itself for certain people. But then once they've got to that stage, when they've had the therapy of just the sympathy, then they need something else. And some of the people in that group are not the sort of people who go to a counsellor for one reason or another, and so I'm determined that I'm going to bring a lot of the techniques that I've learned into the group, and offer to them. It's up to them whether they do anything with them or not, but that's what I'm going to do.

Last reviewed September 2017.

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