The Importance Of Support Groups During Mental Health Struggles

No one understands mental health struggles more than those who have been through it themselves.

CN: Disordered eating

*Names have been changed for confidentiality.


"Without my support group, I would be entirely stranded and alone," Maria* confided in me. "It helps me to feel validated, understood, and inspired by individuals who are able to share the wisdom gained through their battles."

Maria attends the same eating disorder group that I do, and her words deeply resonate with me. When I found myself emotionally battered from the onslaught of my toxic relationships and eating disorder, I attempted a medical referral immediately. I am still waiting for the first letter to start the process off. 

A System Under Strain

This lack of access, sadly, is often the case for those who are struggling with mental health conditions (one in four people worldwide). 

In many cases, the services available to help are either stretched to their absolute limit or simply inaccessible due to location or personal circumstances. People — even medical professionals — still struggle to understand mental illness, making getting funding and help for such conditions even harder. 

This is rarely the fault of hard-working staff in the mental health sector, but when you're in the depths of a debilitating illness, knowing this is little consolation. 

This is why support groups can play such a vital role in mental health support. 

The benefits of support groups are tied to the empathy that everyone feels for each other. Knowing that everyone in attendance is struggling, people in a support group environment feel inherently connected to those around them. 

The Road to (Communal) Recovery

With my doctor’s appointment attended and the reality of the waiting list emphasized to me, I went about my life trying my best to somehow miraculously not have an eating disorder in the meantime… then I binged — hard. 

Crumpled up in a broken pile on my sofa, I knew that this wouldn’t suffice. I had taken the initiative to contact a support group in my area a few days prior, but I was scared to attend. That binge was the catalyst that changed things for me. I emailed the organizer, asked if it was okay for me to bring my dog with me, and went there the very same evening. 

Hugging my pup for dear life, I didn’t know what to expect. By the time I left, I felt like a weight had lifted from my shoulders. 

While in the group, I was met with sympathy, understanding, practical advice, empowering words, and (most importantly) a group of friends who knew exactly what I was going through — and who wanted to recover just as much as I did. 

Finding Your People

It’s true what they say: "From the outside looking in you can’t understand it, from the inside looking out you can’t explain it."

Reaching out to others can be very helpful but, to be honest, a lot of people just don’t "get it," and sometimes this can feel just as isolating as not seeking help at all. But peer-based support groups are different. 

No one understands mental health struggles more than those who have been through it themselves, and because of this, fellow group members can be the most valuable helpers you will ever encounter. This is something that is being increasingly recognized in mental health, with some studies suggesting that attending peer support groups can be an effective treatment method for many individuals. 

The benefits of support groups are tied to the empathy that everyone feels for each other. Knowing that everyone in attendance is struggling, people in a support group environment feel inherently connected to those around them. 

 

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A Structure of Solidarity

Beyond this, support groups focus on communal empowerment: investing time in focusing on each other’s strengths, tackling the stresses people have experienced between meetings, and finding ways to seek little victories on the road to recovery. The result is a space where sufferers don’t feel judged for their illness and tend to leave with positive ways to move forward at their own pace. 

There’s a sense of accountability that comes from supporting each other. "Through trying to support someone else, you can hear yourself saying things you should have told yourself a long time ago," shared Maria. "So there’s potential to grow in tandem."

"When you are weak, someone else will be strong, and when they are weak, you can be strong and support them."

Finding a Support Group

One of the other clear benefits of finding a support group is that, compared to cognitive behavioral therapy (or similar professional channels), support groups tend to be much more readily available. 

Most mental health non-profits will have a section on their website where users can search for local support groups, and many smaller groups advertise themselves on social media as well. Plus, if there’s no support group in a person’s area, anyone can start one up themselves, creating that network for everyone who might need it. 

If you feel like a support group might be beneficial to you, but you struggle with social interactions, then it’s also important to know that you don’t have to attend straight away. There’s always an option to contact the organizer and let them know about your struggles and circumstances. This is what I did, and I personally found that in the meantime, pouring my soul out through the written word was its own therapy. It was freeing just to have that initial connection.

A word of warning, though: Make sure that the support group you attend is the right environment for you. When done correctly, the primary focus of a group is recovery and support, as opposed to just providing a forum for constant negative communication. 

The wrong support group can very easily become a place where you start "trading tips" on how to say disordered, rather than feeling capable of making progress.

This is especially dangerous when illness-related behaviours are involved.

If, at any point, you don’t feel comfortable, you have the right to leave and try another group (or, again, create your own). Group support should always be an affirming experience, and when you find those you mesh well with, the change can literally be a life-or-death one.  

I know I’d be lost without my group, and I haven’t engaged in any disordered eating since my very first meeting. 

With my group, recovery seems possible. 

Special thanks to Maria and to the Torbay Eating Disorder Support Group, who agreed to provide quotes for this article. 


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