-Aditi Patkar, The MINDS Foundation

Out of 7.7 billion different minds and personalities in the world, there are a handful or even less people in each person’s lives who understand them and stand by them no matter what. And as each individual is different and complex, we should be very grateful to those handful bunch for understanding us. Now imagine if someone who is suffering from a mental illness, someone who is stigmatised by their own society, someone who doesn’t understand their own mind, someone who is sometimes cornered by their own people. Such a individual will be benefitted by a support group.

A research was done by Venkatesh et al in 2015 on perception of stigma towards  mental health problems in south India. The participants of the study were 445 people from Udupi district. Community Attitude Towards Mentally Ill(CAMI) scale was used to study the stigma. The results showed that the overall prevalence of stigma toward mental illness was  high. Hence, their study suggests that there is a strong need to eliminate stigma associated with mental illness to improve the mental health status of the region.

Another research was done by Jadhav et al in 2007 on stigmatization of sever mental illnesses in India. They administered a scale on a sample in rural and urban India. The results showed that the stigma against mental illnesses was high in rural areas and compared to the urban areas. The results of the this study also  suggest that although urban India is more tolerant towards mental health issues, they are excluding of those suffering from it at work place.

The above researches show the stigma that mentally ill people face. An article in times of India in 2017, stated that almost 7.5 percent of Indian population suffers from major or minor mental illnesses. The report also mentions how barriers to effective care include lack of resources, lack of trained health-care providers, and social stigma associated with mental disorders. India has less than 4,000 psychiatrists to treat its mentally ill people.

All of these reports and researches scream that any tool that will be of benefit to mentally ill people in India should be encouraged and used. Seeking holistic  help can make the crucial difference between eventual recovery and wellness vs. prolonged and aggravated mental illness. In addition to various kinds of psychological and psychiatric interventions,  support groups are also an integral and indispensable part of the recovery process. 

A support group is a meeting of members who provide help and companionship to one another. Support groups are comprised of others who have been through the issue at hand. They bring together people who are going through or have gone through similar experiences.  A person’s relationship with doctor may not provide adequate emotional support, and a person’s family and friends may not understand the impact of a disease or treatment. Therefore such  groups may help to bridge the gap between medical and emotional need. The common experience among members of a support group often means they have similar feelings, worries, everyday problems, treatment decisions or treatment side effects. A support group can be led by a professional, para professional, organisation or a group of people sharing similar experiences in terms of mental health illnesses.

Most support groups are facilitated or led by lay persons, often in contact with existing organizations such  the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill . Support groups usually have a set time to meet, it can either be weekly or monthly.  These meetings can happen anywhere like at a Church, community centres etc. They have an  open format means that the groups are ongoing, and members have the option of attending when it is convenient for them.

In addition to these traditional, face-to-face support groups, technology has had an impact on the functioning and availability of support groups. There are many list-serves, e-mail groups, and chat groups that provide information about specific life problems , certain types of mental illness, and specific health problems. Some individuals are actually more comfortable participating in Internet support groups due to the greater anonymity they offer.

There are a number of benefits of a support group. The group members may feel less lonely, isolated or judged. It will help to reducing distress, depression, anxiety or fatigue. It provides members a non-judgemental platform to talk about their day to day struggle and feelings. Also, through support group, members can get in touch with a medical practitioner, social worker etc and get in-depth knowledge about their disorder and available and new treatment options. 

Also, people suffering from mental illnesses have poor social skills and experience withdrawal from social situations. Therefore support groups can provide them with a safe environment for them to practise social skills.

Although majority of people suffering from mental illnesses seek therapy, one way of instilling hope in them about future is through support groups, where they can see others who are on the way to recovery and doing good themselves.

In India, the family is the primary caregiver for individuals who have illness. The family members of people affected by a mental illness face various problem such as financial, emotional, interpersonal relationships, social relationships affecting the caregiver’s day-to-day activities, health and occupation. The families need information, support, knowledge and specific suggestions for coping with mentally ill relatives. With the increase in de-institutionalization, self-help groups are bridging the gap between hospitalization and community living. Over the past two decades, self-help groups have become an important way of helping people cope with various problems due to mental illness. There are self-help groups for families of persons with mental illness in India.

A study was done by Ponnuchamy et al to find out the find out the expectations of members of a family support group and assess the benefits of family support group meetings. The researchers collected data from a day care centre Chetana in Bangalore. They conducted semi structured interviews of people who attended support group meetings for a minimum period of 6 months. The result that they found out was that participation in a support group meeting positively affects key variables in the participant’s adaptation to mental illness in a relative. Therefore, support groups are very important and useful for not only people suffering from mental health issues but also for their primary caregivers.

A DNA article talked about an online community called Bipolar India which started a peer support group. They started by having online discussions on the website in which bipolar disorder and depression afflicted hesitantly began discussing their problems.  And then it slowly gained momentum. In 2015, these group of people started meeting offline and the peer support group has caregivers of mentally ill as well. The article talked about a case of a girl suffering from Bipolar who had stopped treatment and interaction with people. But after she joined the peer support group, she shared her story and reported that she felt very light after doing so. It was also reported that after having spoken to the group members, that girl agreed to start her treatment again.

This October, the World Mental Health Month, The MINDS Foundation, Mind Mantra and DeSousa Foundation unitedly piloted an experience sharing group which is a parallel to support groups. With the sessions allowing emotional support, it received people with different problems and from different walks of life. The feedback received was helpful to allow the partnership to keep carrying forward with these sessions. People experienced a unitedness and received greater perspective at these group meetings.

Thus, support groups rely on the concept of self-disclosure, which acts as a catharsis for the members thus enabling them to feel empowered and at the time motivating them to work towards a better life.

The tagline of Bipolar India rightly states,” Let’s walk together”( for mental illness). Like the bipolar India peer support group, many supports groups should be established in all parts of India, be it rural or urban to ensure that each and every person suffering from mental illness feels understood and gets support.

To enable maximum number of people to join support groups, mental health professionals in India should keep with themselves a list of mental health support groups in their area or region. And they should encourage maximum number of patients to join the support groups.