If you or someone you care for has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, finding support groups can be an important part of the overall management of the disorder. However, there are both pros and cons that you should be aware of when seeking out and attending support group meetings.

Personal experience has taught me some important factors to consider when locating and selecting support groups and other resources that have allowed me to meet many, many people who lived with this disorder on a daily basis.

The Benefits of Finding the Right Bipolar Support Group

From my own experiences trying to discover everything I could about bipolar disorder so that I could help my mom, I realized that support groups can be a truly useful part of treatment for several reasons.

First, many people with bipolar disorder or their loved ones often become overwhelmed by a crisis. Maybe they don't have any way to pay their medical bills or maybe they've alienated beloved family members during a severe episode. Whatever the problem, the support group can help them work through issues and deal with them so that they do not build up, cause more stress, and possibly trigger another episode.

A second reason I'd recommend support groups is that they help you realize that you are not alone in living with this disorder. It is not just your problem. Many, many people are dealing with bipolar disorder as well; some are effectively managing their disorder and living productive, happy lives while others either do not know how to or choose to not manage their disorder well. In her whole life, my mother had only met one or two other people with bipolar disorder. Because of the support groups, I've met many times that number. Believe me; it helps to have people around who know what you're going through.

Third, support groups help people with bipolar disorder begin to deal with their own emotions and feelings. These are things that are often hard to talk about with people who don't have the disorder or who don't know someone that does. In fact, they can be tough to discuss even with close family members or friends. Being part of a good support group makes it easier for people to open up and deal with those feelings in a healthy way.

Some people don't join support groups regardless of the benefits I've discussed above because they're afraid they'll have to keep going to meetings for the rest of their lives. That's not true. When you join a support group, there are absolutely no rules about how long you must remain a member or how many sessions you have to attend. However, most people seem to enjoy the meetings and even continue working within that support group after they've learned to management their disorder well so that they can give back and help others learn to effectively live with this disorder.

Of course, before you can join a support group you'll need to find the right group for your needs. There is a wide array of support groups available and many of them deal with specific topics, such as depression, drug abuse, emotional support during difficult experiences, etc. You'll need to do some research to find a group that will provide you with the type of assistance you require.

Once you find some potential groups, you'll need to spend some time learning about each of them. You may want to talk to the group's facilitator and some of its existing members. You'll be looking for the following characteristics:

  • Good support groups protect members' privacy and do not tell anyone outside the meeting about what is discussed during meetings or who attends them.
  • Good support groups discourage members from interrupting other members when they are talking.
  • Good support groups create an atmosphere of safety, security, and do not have a judgmental atmosphere so that everyone can feel comfortable sharing their ideas and feelings.
  • Good support groups are led by facilitators who are experienced with support groups and with the topic under discussion.
  • Good support groups do not make attendance mandatory nor do they force you to remain a member for a certain length of time.
  • Good support groups allow everyone to share their feelings and to talk, but don't force anyone to do so until they are comfortable.
  • Good support groups have an atmosphere of hopefulness.
  • Good support groups stick to a pre-defined format for all meetings so members know what to expect.

Even if the group checks out based on these characteristics, you should still find out who sponsors the group and whether or not a fee is required to join. Many mental health organizations put together these support groups but so do other organizations. In some cases, the sponsorship will influence the group. For example, if the support group is sponsored by a church or religious organization, then the provided help will more likely have a spiritual slant. Also, some support groups do ask you to pay a small fee or pass a basket for donations for attending these meetings. Generally, the cost is low and the fees cover the rental of the meeting facilities, the refreshments, etc. You'll want to ask in advance about the fees and what they cover.

After you've finished your research and asked the appropriate questions, you'll be able to join a support group and reap the benefits of being able to share your stories, feelings and problems with others who understand what you're going through.

How to Find Local Support Groups and Other Resources to Help You Cope and Deal With Bipolar

I have personally found that many people and organizations that can help you learn how to effectively cope and deal with bipolar disorder whether you have it personally or are supporting someone who has it. These organizations don’t have advertising budgets, don’t think about marketing themselves, or are based on the concepts of 12-step programs which, by their Traditions, do not advertise. Therefore, these helpful options may be almost unknown to anyone but a few people. However, if you seek them out, they can be reasonably simple to locate.

I have heard of people living within five minutes of an organization that provides all kinds of free services to those with mental illness but they didn’t know they existed until someone randomly told them about the service.

Here’s what you should do to learn about those helpful options in your area:

Hospitals: Get a list of all the hospitals, call and speak to the hospital social worker, telling him/her that you are looking for people, places and organizations that can help you cope and deal with either supporting someone with bipolar or with your own bipolar disorder. Many times hospitals have very well-operated well-funded small groups that offer tons of support. These are my personal favorites and they are NOT advertised well. At the one I attended, there are only about 12 people, on average, at each meeting. It has a ton of literature, books, tapes, videos, food, etc. They have the very best speakers and meetings.

Public Library: Go to the library and ask the reference librarian for assistance in locating information about support groups in your area. Make sure you go to the biggest library possible. Make your request and then the reference librarian will do all the work because they love helping people.

Contact Organizations: Call or email the people who run local support groups or visit www.nami.org, or http://www.dbsalliance.org/. Go to any of the meetings you learn about and ask people attending if they know about other support groups in the area. You will find little known places here and there. For example, I found a person that helps people who lose hair from bipolar medicine.

Use the Phone Book: Check on mental health support groups in your phone book. The free ones are usually under the government listings; the ones that probably cost money will be in the yellow pages of the phone book.

Use the Internet: Navigate to Google.com and type in your town, city or state and the words 'mental health'. However, I have found that most support groups, especially the good ones, aren’t online and can’t be found online in my area. If you live in a large city, you may find some listed.

Ask People: Ask your doctor or therapist. Ask your friends and family members that you feel comfortable asking. Talk to anyone you meet that may have knowledge of support groups in the area. This doesn't mean you have to ask everyone; if you don't feel comfortable asking someone or believe they will not have any knowledge on the subject, don't ask that person. However, your doctor, therapist or a friend may be just the one to refer you to a wonderful support group.

Read the Newspaper: Call the local newspapers and inquire if they publish any notices about local support group meetings. Most local newspapers do publish public service announcements one or two days per week about all sorts of events, including support group meetings. It is usually contained in the Local, Lifestyles or similar newspaper sections. The newspaper can be a valuable resource when searching for support group meetings.

I have found that a lot of these groups don’t even talk to one another. One resource might not even know another one exists; you really have to do your home work. If you do this, you will build a pretty big list of people, places and organizations that can help.

Tips for Attending a Support Group Meeting and Ways to Obtain Maximum Benefit

Some people think there is no strategy involved in going to a support group meeting; that is not true if you want to obtain the most from the meeting. Finding support groups and making connections with people you can relate to who share your problem is rather serious business since it can help greatly in learning to manage your disorder and live a high-functioning life.

Prepare and Bring Handy Supplies:

As a minimum, bring a pen or pencil, notebook, business cards if you have some, or index cards.

  • Bring a pen or pencil so you can write down information, phone numbers of people you meet and other notes.
  • Bring a notebook so you can have a place to write the information you may learn and want to remember. I recommend getting a five-subject notebook or, if you prefer, a three-ring binder and putting all the notes from all the meetings in the same place. This will help you remain organized.
  • At the meeting, write down the name of the person speaking or facilitating, the date and time and also, if offered, his/her contact information. Use the worksheet in the back of this report if you wish. Feel free to make as many copies of this worksheet as you wish.
  • Take notes in bullet format; don’t worry about writing everything down verbatim. You can fill in facts in detail later because the bullets will remind you what was shared.
  • Ask questions when you are allowed to and, if the event is being taped, make sure you wait for the microphone. Nothing makes the people running a support group more frustrated than people who do not talk into the microphone.
  • Immediately after the talk, network among the people you may share something in common with. Try to meet at least one or two new people at every meeting or event. Ask for their email address and/or phone number to follow up and talk with them later or 'share ideas.' Give you business card or index card with your contact information to people that request it. In the back of this report is a simple Support Group Contact List you can feel free to copy and use for entering information from people who share their names and contact information with you.
  • If you have questions that are unanswered after the talk, you should email, fax or write the speaker. You start the letter off with 'I was at your talk on DATE, and I had a question but was unable to ask it….' 100% of the time that I have done this -- and I do it a lot-- my questions were answered by a return call, fax or email.
  • Make sure you contact people in the room if you feel you can share some useful information with them or you think they may have some useful information for you.
  • When you go home, fill in your notes and make notes on things that you need to take action on immediately.
  • Enter the names and contact information of the people that you met into your permanent Bipolar Telephone List or Bipolar Rolodex to make future reference simple and easy. The benefits of using a Rolodex is that it is easy to add additional cards, keeping your contacts in alphabetical order.

Advanced Strategies

You may want to maintain two notebooks, like I do. Take one notebook with you to meetings and job bulleted notes quickly without worrying about neatness. When you get home, you can neatly write more complete notes from the meeting so you have a nice neat copy. Or, you can simply type up your notes and save them as a computer file that would be searchable (I do this as well). All this writing and typing will help you internalize what you learned. Some people think I am a little extreme but it works for me.

I am sure that you probably have never thought of this method to get a lot from a support group but it works! Try it.

Support Group Meeting DOs and DON'Ts

The people who attend support group meetings as well as the person who facilitates the meeting often make the meeting effective and enjoyable or they may, in fact, cause the meeting to be ineffective. Here are some tips about how to make a positive contribution to the success of the meetings you attend.

DON’T..…

….. Ramble on when asking a question. Be brief, clear and concise. ….. Make any claims about certain medications not working or having horrible side effects. Remember what doesn’t work for your loved one might work for someone else. Keep comments like this to yourself to avoid creating a kind of hysteria ….. Keep questions down to less than 3 minutes and ask no more than 2 at a time. ….. Don’t argue with people. ….. Take literature there is little to no chance you’ll read. Most groups operate on a shoe- string budget; don’t take advantage of their kindness. ….. Stay in a group that makes you feel depressed or irritated after you leave or feel that too many people are only complaining and nothing constructive is being discussed. ….. Believe everything you hear. Check out anything you learn by using other resources or discussing it with your doctor. ….. Try to be the center of attention. Participate if you feel comfortable sharing, but allow others time to participate as well. ….. Spend too much time with people who are obviously low-functioning; your goal is to find people you can relate to that will help you improve your own level of functioning. Unless you feel you can truly help the person, avoid letting low-functioning people bring you down. ….. Attend meetings where the majority of the people are judgmental, extremely negative and constantly complaining or blaming instead of searching for solutions.

DO…..

….. Help others when appropriate. Share what you have learned but don't make medical recommendations. ….. Volunteer if you can, even if all you can do is help clean up after the meeting or set up before a meeting. ….. Make as large a donation as you can to help the group meet expenses. ….. Network with other positive people who are sharing about and clearly looking for solutions to problems. ….. Notice who is in the room to see if it’s a good fit for you. If you find yourself surrounded by a lot of low-functioning people with bipolar disorder and supporters who only complain, it’s probably not the group you should be in. ….. Ask clear, concise questions of people. ….. Look for people you can think you can relate to and get their contact information. ….. Share in discussion meetings if you feel comfortable, but only if it is on-topic, short and will add to the meeting in a positive way. ….. Be polite and kind to others. Understand that newcomers may not know how to behave in a support group meeting and be tolerant within reasonable limitations. ….. Keep an open mind. ….. Attend a support group at least twice, even if the first meeting was not that impressive. No group has perfect meetings every time. Give the group a chance before making a final judgment.

Worksheet for Recording Support Group Information

Date of Attendance:

Support Group Name:

Day of Week and Times of Meetings:

Meeting Location:

Meeting Format:

Contact Name and Info:

Notes:

Example of How to Use Worksheet for Recording Support Group Information

Date of Attendance: Friday, November 1

Support Group Name: Bipolar Support Group of Anytown

Day of Week and Times of Meetings: Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 6 pm

Meeting Location: 1234 Some Street, next to the XYZ store.

Meeting Format: Open discussion meetings except last Friday of month which is guest speaker meeting.

Contact Name and Info: John Brown, 555-1122 (home), 555-0011 (fax) johnbrown@somedomain.com (personal email). Facilitates on Fridays that aren't speaker meetings.

Notes: Great facilitator that kept discussion on topic. Serves coffee, no soft drinks available, remember to bring one next time. Several people that seemed nice invited me for coffee after meeting at nearby restaurant. People appear to have a very good social network, very open to including new people. Attend this support group again.

Discussion topic: tips on finding health care professionals that understand Bipolar Disorder - note one - note two - note three - note four - remember, you can make neater notes in another notebook - or on your computer once you return home. - simply get facts that will jog your memory about the discussion. - etc.

Bipolar Telephone Contact List

Name: ______________________________ Meeting where met: ______________________

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About the Author

David Oliver is the founder of FreeBipolarCourse.com, a one-stop source of information on how to cope and deal with bipolar disorder. Sign up for one of his FREE Mini Courses on bipolar by visiting FreeBipolarCourse.com