Bipolar Support Groups: The Benefits for Patients, Family, Friends and Care-Givers

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What is a Bipolar Support Group?

Some individuals with psychological disorders such as bipolar use support groups as “alongside treatment” in addition to therapy and medication. Support groups are different from therapy sessions in that they are informal gatherings of patients going through similar experiences and are held outside of clinical settings. Support groups are usually established by non-profit organizations or are supported by mental health clinics.

In addition to bipolar support groups there are groups specifically tailored for family members and care-givers. These may or may not have professional moderators and counselors as anybody can form these groups such as relatives or friends of those who are bipolar. There are also many online bipolar support groups where patients can participate anonymously if they choose to.

What are the Benefits for Bipolar Patients?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducted a five-year research study on bipolar patients. One group of patients (group A) received only traditional services such as therapy and medication, while a second group (group B) participated in support groups as well as receiving therapy and medication. At the end of the research period the participants in group B showed much greater improvement including enhanced quality of life, social adaptability, empowerment, hope and overall recovery from the disorder (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, 2007).

A Canadian research study (2005) “Consumer/Survivor Initiatives: Impact, Outcomes and Effectiveness” discovered that support group programs not only improve patients’ recovery and health, but also reduce the role of hospitals and emergency services. According to this research, after the participants became involved with a support group, the days spent in hospitals dropped “from 48 to 4” which saved about $12 million or more by cutting out hospital charges (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, 2007).

The reasons why these support groups work so well on bipolar patients are:

  1. “Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?” Each person in the support group can empathize with others because he or she has been in the same situation or is going through it at the moment. Patients share their stories, experiences and feelings and find out what is common among them.
  2. Even though family and friends typically try their hardest to understand the patients and what they are going through, they can never understand exactly how bipolar individuals feel. When a patient shares his or her experiences with others going through similar experiences they may well receive helpful suggestions and feedback. This can also inspire them to come up with ideas to deal with their problems.
  3. The socializing factor involved in support groups makes them all the more useful, particularly if the patient has withdrawn from close relationships in the recent past. They get to make new friends and feel confident and comfortable opening up to them about their disorder. Also, in such a compassionate environment, the stigma a person may feel about having a mental disorder is reduced.
  4. If the patient hasn’t already been seeking professional treatment, he or she may be motivated to do so after participating in a support group. Bipolar support groups can help encourage patients to participate actively in their own treatment plans. Patients generally tend to find hope for their future and have a positive outlook for life in general after sharing experiences with similar patients.

What are the Benefits for Families of Bipolar Patients?

Like any other illness, bipolar disease can also be hard on family members and friends. Lack of education about the disorder can make it all the more difficult to cope with person’s manic episodes and behavioral problems.

Therefore support groups specifically for families, friends and carers can be very useful. These groups are typically established by volunteers and community members who have had experience with bipolar people.

The purpose is to have informal gatherings of family and friends to discuss and share experiences, foster a better understanding of the disorder, develop greater patience, stay positively motivated and maintain a caring relationship with the patient they are dealing with.

These support groups usually have open dialogues where techniques and tools to bridge misunderstandings are brainstormed. Members learn how to help patients when a bipolar episode occurs, for example by communicating calmy. They are also taught how to monitor the illness, and to provide emotional support, companionship and nonverbal support such as being available for listening as well as how to give the appropriate encouraging gestures. The family members are also instructed in how to deal with risky or inappropriate behavior, and to plan ahead for times when the patient may become severely ill.