Friends, Family and Peer Support Groups

I am lucky to have the support of family and friends.

For months before and after being diagnosed with depression, I worried about what my friends would think of me if they found out. I thought they would forget who I was and only see me as someone with mental illness. I repeatedly cancelled plans to meet up with them, but after doing so for months I sensed they were feeling frustrated with me. I hadn’t told them anything I was experiencing and for all they knew I wasn’t ill but sick of them.

Though I had started treatment, I still didn’t feel well enough to meet up and go out with them. My mind was consumed with negative thoughts and I had very little energy to cope with anxiety and depression. I hadn’t laughed in months. The risk of losing the few friends I had, forced me to make a decision about what to tell them.

When I finally felt ready, I called them all together and said I had something important and serious to discuss. We had never met up like this. Even before I started talking I could tell my friends knew something was wrong and were concerned about it; they all showed up on time. As I began to explain my story and what was happening my fears were eased.  They didn’t lose sight of who I really was.

It was hard on them too and I am sure they were out of their comfort zones. When they didn’t know what to say, my friends listened and asked questions trying to understand what I was going though. It wasn’t perfect, they didn’t know anymore about anxiety and depression than I did, but they knew me.

Shifting my friends from a source of anxiety to a source of support gave me one less thing to worry about, and a few more people to lean on.

This goes to show the lessening of stigma that can occur when we know someone with a mental illness firsthand. The stereotypes we associate with mental health issues are broken down and replaced with by real and complex person.

As I’ve become more vocal about mental illness, I’ve also learned how universal an issue it is. Many people are tired of suffering in silence or letting their friends do so. Almost everyone knows someone with a mental health issue and there are many people who wish to help in anyway they can.

Not everyone is this receptive and I know people who never received the same support from their families. I have met others who have lost friends and partners because of the lack of knowledge and abundance of stigma that surrounds mental illness.

I am hopeful that more people in the future will be as fortunate as I am to receive support from those closest to them. Within the last few years, discussions about mental health have opened up and the stigma associated with it is being replaced by empathy and understanding.

Friends and Family

Having a social support network was crucial in my recovery. When depressed my first instinct is to stay home and isolate myself. I didn’t feel like going out and my usual interests (photography, design, hiking), either didn’t interest me or didn’t provide the same positive feedback as usual. With depression, my emotional capacity to take pleasure from these things or to simply have fun had basically been turned off.

Sometimes, I won’t want to go out when I’m feeling depressed because I think I am incapable of enjoying myself. I go along through the motions, but don’t feel anything. It can be very tiring. I feel anxious and embarrassed because I know I’m not acting like myself. Even when trying my best, I am much quieter and more withdrawn when depressed. Nevertheless, when this happens I try to make plans with family and friends to hang out or get some exercise. It’s better to meet up for coffee than to sit alone at home. The majority of the time things work out better than I would have anticipated, as my anticipations stem from a place of distorted thoughts and emotions.

Peer Support Groups

Finding a peer support group I could relate with was incredibly important in my recovery. I am lucky that one was formed at the University of British Columbia and thankful to those who volunteered their time to get The Kaleidoscope up and running. After making myself go for a few weeks, I started to see the value of peer support and attended meetings weekly for almost two years.

As I felt less stigmatized about mental illness, I became a facilitator and volunteer with the group.  It’s now a few years later and The Kaleidoscope has established itself at UBC as a great resource for students experiencing mental health issues. I wish more universities and colleges had groups like this to offer peer support.

Peer groups can be hit or miss, depending on who’s attending and how well we identify with them. I found the group at my university to be helpful as I met other students with similar issues.

What happens in a peer-support group?

The group was very low key and welcoming, we participated as much or as little as we wanted at each meeting. Meetings consisted of an informal weekly check-in and then broke out into regular conversation.  There were usually three to ten of us present each meeting, we listened and leaned on each other for support when we needed to. Having a group I met with regularly kept me accountable to attending each week.

The group provided me with a place free of any stigma. It was a place where I could say what was really on my mind. If I was having a bad day, I didn’t have to pretend that everything was fine. I could be myself and didn’t have to worry about what others in the group would think if I wanted to talk about my medication, therapy or anything else. It was a very warm and supportive atmosphere.

The group reinforced the fact that I was not alone and that many people were also doing their best to overcome depression and other illnesses. The more people I met, the more I realized how similar our illnesses and experiences were and how much we all could have been helped, had we known more about mental health. The group also exposed me to the complexity and variation of mental illness as I met people who had anxiety, bipolar and other issues I knew little about. This exposure gave me a wider understanding of mental illness and the challenges I was facing.

Read more posts in this series: Exploring my Recovery from Depression