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Let’s talk about support groups. If you dig into many articles online, you will find that they present a one-sided view of support groups: “Support groups are good. Go to a support group.”
And, yes, support groups can be a wonderful place to find healing, grow as a person, and attain the goals that you want to attain.
I, the writer behind this article, have attended several support groups as someone that needed support, a supporter of others, and a facilitator. By the end of this article, you’ll know how and why a support group can help you. We’re also going to share some risks that come with support groups so you can ensure you’re in a healthy space.
The Benefits Of A Support Group Or Community
1. You won’t be alone.
The greatest benefit of a support group or community is that you won’t be alone. Unfortunately, mental health and addiction problems are stigmatized, so many people do not feel comfortable being open about them. That creates a lonely, isolating effect, making it difficult to work toward recovery and well-being.
Once you get into support groups, you will find that many face the same struggles as you. That is a powerful thing when you feel isolated and alone.
2. You’ll have a safe, supportive space to speak.
One common piece of advice for recovery is to have supportive people to lean on when things aren’t good. The problem is that it assumes a level of emotional awareness and competence that would allow a person to effectively provide support. Simply put, this is not a natural or common skill that people tend to have. The kind of support you’ll receive from friends and family members can be very hit or miss.
Furthermore, you can often receive bad advice by leaning on the wrong people. For example, one common problem for mentally ill people is compliance with medication treatment. It’s much harder to stick to that plan when your “support” tells you things like, “Aren’t you concerned about the long-term side effects? You’ve been fine for a while. You don’t really need it.”
Sounds innocent enough, right? Well, no. Anyone with any experience will tell you that advice can destroy lives and kill people.
A support group should be a properly facilitated, safe place where you should be able to air out your fears, concerns, and frustration without needing to worry about terrible advice.
The other factor is the sense of obligation some people feel for sharing. Maybe you don’t want to lean on your personal circle a lot because you don’t want to feel like a burden. A support group is where you can get support without obligation or guilt.
And still, not everyone comes from a healthy family or friends. You might be surrounded by a**holes that will take advantage of your vulnerability. A support group is a better alternative than letting your guard down around people that will exploit your vulnerability.
Furthermore, support groups are typically anonymous for the most part, so you don’t need to worry about the stigma.
3. You can help other people just like you.
There are many paths toward healing. One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and others is to use your wellness journey to help others along the way. We are all on similar roads, heading in similar directions, though they aren’t identical. You have valuable life experiences and wisdom that other people on their own paths can benefit from.
But it’s not just about other people; it’s about fulfilling a spiritual need that many people have. So many people need community and support that they just can’t get. They need people that understand them and who have walked those similar paths.
They need people like you to learn from, and you need people like them to learn from.
There is no better place to do this than a support group.
Even if you’re not sure that a support group is right for you, it is worthwhile to at least give one a visit and see what it’s about. You may be pleasantly surprised.
The Risks Of Support Groups
1. You will be around struggling people and need to account for that.
Gather any group of people together and you will have some that don’t act in good ways. However, a majority aren’t bad people. They’re people who are struggling with their lives, their problems, their emotions, and their actions. Nowhere is that more true than in support groups. That’s typically what people go to support groups for. Right? Right.
The problem is that being around struggling people can destabilize you, particularly if it’s not a well-run support group. Certain topics need to be discussed in a particular way to not trigger others. For example, in substance abuse support groups, there’s a common rule to not share “war stories” and reminisce about the good times. That can cause people to relapse.
In mental illness groups, certain topics can be more triggering than others if they aren’t handled with tact. And still, sometimes, being around other unstable people can cause you to destabilize. This is particularly true with Bipolar Disorder, where just being around an unwell person can be enough to trigger you into an unwell cycle.
Solutions: First, look for the group’s rules and see if they are enforced. Facilitators should advise people about what subjects to talk about and when. They may even interject to steer a conversation. This is normal, to be expected, and a sign of a good facilitator.
Second, you may find that you are not stable enough and that the environment may cause you to stress or destabilize. In that situation, you’ll want to evaluate if you’re still receiving enough benefit from the group to keep putting yourself in that situation. It’s okay to step out or reduce the number of meetings you attend if the group is no longer a healthy place for you.
2. A support group is not a lonely hearts club.
People who go to support groups are often going through some ugly times. They are in a state of emotional vulnerability when they first walk in the door, and likely are throughout the meeting if they are participating. Unfortunately, that sense of vulnerability can often be misinterpreted, especially if people share similar stories enough to find connections with one another. Connection, in itself, is not a bad thing. The problem is when people start trying to take it further than that.
It is bad to date people you connect with at a support group. In fact, it’s always against the rules in any quality group. But, of course, that doesn’t stop people from doing it or trying to do it. Some scummy people will certainly use that time of vulnerability to identify a target to take advantage of. But it’s not always malicious.
There are many lonely people out there who just want some companionship. Trying to get healthy from problems like mental illness and addiction is a lonely journey. Still, a support group is supposed to be a safe place for vulnerability and healing, not hooking up.
Just don’t date or sleep with people you meet at support groups. If you connect well with someone and forge a friendship, keep it as a friendship until much later when you’re both not in such a vulnerable place. The other issue is that wellness and recovery are not linear. Some people struggle more than others. Relapses happen, and a partner’s relapse can cause you to relapse.
If someone is being creepy or making passes at you or other group members, complain about it to the facilitator. They should shut it down. Typically, the person will get one warning and then be ejected from the group if they keep it up.
3. A support group may be spiritual but shouldn’t be religious.
People often equate spirituality with religion. They aren’t the same thing and aren’t supposed to be the same. Let’s use the common example of Alcoholics Anonymous. They typically teach you to find a “higher power” to believe in that will help you recover.
The reason is that many people just don’t feel strong enough to do it alone. They may have been torn down by life, traumatized, or whatever that makes them feel like they aren’t capable. They need something to believe in, or that inspires them to keep them going through the dark moments.
In mental health and recovery, “spiritual health” is largely about the intangible things that make life worth living. Some examples might include an artist who loves to paint, a parent that finds peace and love in their children, a gardener tending their flower bed, or a photographer shooting pictures. And some people find inspiration in helping others who have experienced similar struggles.
These things are spiritual but not religious practices that nurture the intangible parts of your mental health. However, they can be comforting and provide inspiration to keep you going through the hard times.
Of course, in a perfect world, that’s how it would be. But we don’t live in a perfect world. So instead, you sometimes have facilitators that use support groups as an opportunity to tell you to find Jesus for healing.
A support group is supposed to welcome anyone as a place to come together for healing. That can’t happen for Muslims, Wiccans, pagans, atheists, agnostics, or whoever walks in your door if facilitators are more interested in preaching than facilitating.
That being said, churches often offer space for support groups for free. A support group hosted at a church doesn’t mean you will be preached to. There are so many supportive members of churches and clergy out there who just want to see people do better. So don’t let the location turn you off—give the group a visit to see what the environment is like. You may be surprised.
Do visit the group to see what kind of environment it actually has. Again, there would be no preaching or attempted conversion in a perfect world. If you find that there is, chances are pretty good you’ll need to find another group. Complaints usually don’t go anywhere unless the group is facilitated through an agency. In this case, you should file a complaint with the agency itself.
Of course, not every location has many groups to choose from. For example, if you’re in a rural area, there may only be one. In that case, you may try looking for support groups or social media groups online.
4. Online support groups and spaces can destroy your mental health.
Online support groups and social media communities can really be hit or miss in their quality. The problem with online communities is that they need to be tightly managed to ensure the quality does not drop.
A community that starts off small with like-minded individuals who are dedicated to the same goal is often a healthy, great place to be. It doesn’t matter if it’s a support group or a hobby community. But there’s a problem. The more people you attract, the harder the group gets to moderate. The admin needs to find help and moderators that are people with good judgment who can help enforce the rules. That’s not always easy.
Then, you have participants who feel they should come into the group and tell everyone else how it should be. “Well, you need this rule. You need that rule. Couldn’t you do this instead? Can I have an exception?” And, if the moderation and admin team are lax or conflict-avoidant, these constant pushes can cause the community to become something it’s not.
And what happens then? Then, you lose all the older members. They no longer identify with the group’s core identity that may have been established for years. It’s no longer for them because their goals and expectations have changed. Typically, a group will lose members with any major rule changes. This is why.
The best way to determine the quality of online support groups and communities is to lurk for a while. In the context of internet use, to lurk means to just read and watch what goes on in the community before deciding to participate. You want to look for things that should not be in a support group. That will help you see whether or not it has an active and effective moderation team. Find a different community if there is a lot of bullsh*t, content that shouldn’t be posted, or people selling things.
You’ll thank yourself later.
Some Final Thoughts On Support Groups
Support groups can and will be of help to a lot of people, but they aren’t for everyone. If you try a few with an open mind but still don’t get much out of them, or you find that they actually hinder your recovery for one or more reasons, don’t force yourself to keep going or keep trying more groups. Accept that they are not for you and look for other means of support such as a mental health professional.
Of course, if you do find yourself benefiting from a support group, then that’s great. Just be sure to monitor how you feel about it over the course of time. You might find that you eventually get less from it depending on where you happen to be in your recovery. Don’t feel you have to keep going because of loyalty, because you think you owe it to the group, or even if you’d like to be of help to others who are struggling—you are under no obligation to participate if you don’t think it benefits you to do so any longer.
We really do recommend that you seek professional help from one of the therapists at BetterHelp.com whether you join a support group or not. Professional therapy can be highly effective in helping you on your journey of healing and recovery.
You may also like:
- 10 Things To Do If You’re Struggling Mentally
- 8 Emotional Self-Care Strategies: Take Care Of Yourself Emotionally