As someone who lives with bipolar disorder and often feels disconnected from the “real” world, it’s no surprise I’ve spent a lot of time in online support groups. All of this was long before I reached recovery, became a writer, or even heard the term “peer support.”
For me, it was simply about finding other people who could commiserate with me and understand what I was going through. Overall, I had good experiences in many of the online support groups I joined. However, not all such groups are created equal.
Are All Peer Support Groups Helpful?
When I began my career as a writer and speaker, I didn’t intend to start critiquing the mental health community. I wanted to focus on explaining mental illness to people who didn’t understand it.
However, the more mentally healthy I became, the more need for improvement I saw inside the various unmoderated support groups I was a member of. Many groups seemed to focus on complaining about their situations, rather than seeking solutions.
I even noticed that some people were playing what I dubbed the “Suffering Olympics.” No matter how sick, traumatized, or desperate a person was, someone would “one up” them and claim to be worse off.
In many support groups, the groupthink mentality was trending negative, instead of positive. It made me feel hopeless and sad. So, I did the only thing I could think of and started my own online support group, Positive Bipolar/Depression Happy Place.
Can We Discuss Mental Illness Positively?
It’s evident that I went a little overboard in naming my group. Depression and bipolar disorder are serious and the name can be a bit off-putting. It’s not that we don’t take these diagnoses seriously; it’s that, in spite of the obvious negativity, the group strives to move forward in a positive manner.
Our mission statement says things a little better:
“The mission of the Positive Bipolar/Depression Happy Place is to stimulate and nurture positive conversations surrounding managing and living with bipolar disorder, depression, and other mental illnesses through the power of acceptance and positive engagement with our peers.”
Recently, a conversation took place in the group that I thought really illustrated just how important strong, positive support really is to reaching recovery.
First, this question was posed to the group:
“I thought everything was going good with my meds but sadly I ended up developing some bad side effects. So now I’m going to be starting a new one. 4th one to be exact. Has anyone else had this many problems finding one that worked?”
Within 24 hours, 50 comments were posted about the struggles of finding the right medications with a mental illness diagnosis. Here’s a small sample:
“Yes. It’s been over a year since my BP1 diagnosis and we’re still searching for the right combo to treat the BP depression.”
“its been 14 yrs… over 25 diff meds….. dont give up”
“It is a hard process to find the right combo, but worth it in the end. Don’t give up.”
People shared stories of the difficulties and even complained about the process. But there was information and hope exchanged between the participants. The overall focus was on moving forward and reaching recovery. Yes, it is hard, the group agreed, but it’s worth it and it can be done.
We don’t minimize each other’s experiences or pretend that this is easy. We don’t ignore the horrors of our illnesses, but work together to eliminate them. The groupthink, overall, is how to give something as devastating as mental illness a positive note, how to encourage each other to move forward, and how to help each other stay in and/or reach recovery.
I didn’t invent the power of positive thinking. To be honest, I learned it from the overly optimistic people in my life, like my wife and my mother, who see the best in people and situations. I can’t help but find them incredibly annoying, but I can’t argue with the results of being open to the idea that we can do and be better:
“I’m glad I’m not feeling alone anymore. This group has amazing feedback”