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Why mental health support groups are so important for caregivers

I was pretty desperate the first time I went to a support group. I never saw myself as a support group person, but then again, I didn't know I would ever have to deal with a family member who has a mental illness.
by Jean Williams Modified: June 12, 2014 at 11:55 am •  Published: June 11, 2014

Choosing to go to a support group for the first time is usually prompted by a desperate situation.

I never understood the point of doing math problems that couldn't be solved. I like rolling up my selves and working on projects until they are finished. Getting handed a life problem that doesn’t have a solution presented me with a new challenge. How do I confront this problem without losing hope?

I was pretty desperate the first time I went to a support group. I never saw myself as a support group person, but then again, I didn't know I would ever have to deal with a family member who has a mental illness. For years the behaviors were a mystery. Then there was the dramatic day that a doctor defined the problem by putting a name to the set of behaviors, otherwise known as a diagnosis.

That weekend, someone in Chicago told me about the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI is the only nationwide nonprofit with local affiliates that focuses on helping families understand the predictable stages of emotional response.

I looked up the local number and called NAMI Oklahoma. A woman named Gail picked up the phone. I was sure that whoever answered the phone would be shocked by my story, but I remember the wave of relief I felt when she responded, “Yeah, that is pretty typical. You should come to our support group.” What a comfort it was to know I wasn't alone. Maybe I could find help.

I wanted to know how I could help my loved one. Better yet, I wanted to know how to solve the problem.

Group members who had taken the signature “Family to Family” education program were quick to tell me about the free 12-week class. I was able to register and get started within a few months. It helped me sort out the difference between what I could do and what I couldn’t do and "the wisdom to know the difference."

That first year, I survived Monday to Monday. At group, we take a pledge. “What we say here, stays here.” At that point, I wasn't concerned with the shame of it all. I wanted to talk, and I needed people who would listen.

Each week, I came with questions and listened to the stories presented one by one as we went around the circle. I learned a lot from listening to families unload the latest turn of events in their ongoing sagas.

While observing families dealing with a range of diagnosises, I learned that the alphabet of mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, schizoaffective disorder, BPD and other conditions have their differences, but caregivers share a lot of common experiences.

Continue reading this story on the...

by Jean Williams
NewsOK Contributor
My degree in Psychology did not prepare me to recognize mental illness in my own family. I authored the brochure "What to do in a Mental Health Crisis in Oklahoma County," not because I had the answers, but because I didn't. A wide variety of...
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