Healthy Connections Patients, Caregivers Alike Find Benefits in Support Groups

Few things bring different people together, Baxter Chandler said, like shared challenges.

“What’s remarkable about support groups and therapy groups is that you could be sitting there, looking across the room at someone of a different race, different gender, different sexual orientation, different economic background,” he told HCN, “and they’re talking about their struggles, and it dawns on you that you truly get what what this person is saying. It’s a place where people from very different can really connect with each other.”

Chandler, manager for Outpatient Behavioral Health and the Partial Hospitalization Program at Holyoke Medical Center, oversees a number of therapy groups — a form of support group, one that’s led by a licensed therapist — for people with addiction and behavioral health issues. He sees patients make those connections all the time.

“Support groups and therapy groups share a similar idea, which is that we gain our mental health through our connection with other people,” he said. “That ability to connect with other people through these groups is a healthy thing; not only does it decrease the sense of isolation — the ‘oh my God, I’m the only person with this problem’ kind of feeling — but it helps people connect socially.

“Any type of group is helpful if it decreases the sense that you’re on your own,” he added, “and most people gain a lot of really good insights from other people who are struggling with the same issues.”

Support groups and therapy groups are common at hospitals and in the community, gathering people struggling with any number of circumstances, from disease and addiction to grief and loss, to the burden of caring for elderly or ill loved ones.

“For many years, we’ve found that families, patients, and individuals dealing with a particular life crisis — whether grieving the loss of a family member or dealing with a serious medical issue — find support from other people who are going through the sme problem,” said Marjorie Bloom, a social worker at Baystate Medical Center.

“No one can understand better than someone who has walked in the same shoes, and some support groups are facilitated by people who have walked in those shoes, while some are facilitated by someone like me, whose training is in group dynamics.”

Bruce Bradley-Gilbert, lead counselor and group therapy coordinator at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, has, for the last five years, facilitated two support groups, one for caregivers — mainly of Alzheimer’s patients — and the other for families of people dealing with substance-abuse and mental-health issues.

He said the main benefits of such groups are twofold: information and support.

In the caregiver group — which was first targeted at families and caregivers of CDH patients, but has since been opened up to the community at large — “they’re gaining knowledge and understanding of these conditions and what resources are out there for caregivers, and it’s also a form of emotional support, in the sense that they don’t feel alone; they feel that other people can understand their plight.”

This month, the Healthcare News talks to support-group and therapy-group coordinators about why this type of therapy is beneficial, and usually worth any anxiety participants may feel about exposing their vulnerabilities to people they’ve never met.

First Steps

And, make no mistake, many people do have trouble making that first step.

“In some cases, they think, ‘who am I going to see there?’” Bloom said. “And a lot of people don’t want to share their problems with other people, or hear other people share their problems because it’ll just make them more sad. But people who take that plunge find it very liberating and supportive to find there are other people who have found ways to cope.

“We’re human beings,” she added. “We’re all about connections. Sometimes we feel like we’re the only person in the world dealing with a certain problem. But it’s helpful to know you’re not alone.”

Even people who have been involved in support groups before can get nervous, Chandler said.

“A lot of times, people don’t know what to expect when they walk in,” he said, noting that there are differences between hospital-therapy groups, which tend to be highly structured, and the more relaxed environment of a support group of peers meeting in a church basement, but both can be intimidating. Still, “we find that most groups are very welcoming. Everyone remembers the first day when they walked in there.”

The stigma some people feel about joining a support group can be a manifestation of their own denial, Bradley-Gilbert said.

“In the case of Alzheimer’s, people will put up with a lot of dangerous behavior and really can’t fathom the fact that their parent or loved one has Alzheimer’s,” he explained. “Similarly, parents may not want to admit that their children have serious mental-health issues.”

What eventually drives them to seek support, he continued, is an epiphany that they need help. “They say, ‘these are some of the things I’m tackling, I’ve allowed this behavior for 10 years, now how do I stop it from ruining our family?’”

Sometimes, in the case of a family member or caregiver struggling with a loved one’s condition, it’s fear that initially keeps them from seeking support.

“There’s a reluctance to accept that your mother or father can’t care for themselves and may be in a dangerous situation,” Bradley-Gilbert continued. “But it’s also a financial issue; you’re looking at a nest egg that you were going to rely on, and suddenly you realize you could lose it all to a nursing home.”

Support and therapy groups have ways of breaking through those barriers, however. Bloom noted that some hospital-based groups start out “psychoeducational,” as a way to teach people about a disease process before they’re required to open up; “that’s often less threatening.”

Chandler noted that many groups — those dealing with depression, for instance — are peer-led by someone who has gone through that experience or had family members in that situation, making them easy to relate to.

Profound Benefits

Once someone does take the first step, however, the benefits can be revelatory.

“We know there’s a strong connection between mind and body when it comes to physical healing,” Chandler said. “A lot of research has supported the idea that people going through cancer or other physical issues can at least gain some relief with the mental aspect of what they’re going through and alleviates some of the stress, and that in turn makes them feel physically better.”

He said those mental benefits are twofold: “yes, you go for your own support, but you can also help support other people. When we can help other people and we’re useful to other people, that gives us purpose and a sense of competence, and that feels good.”

Bradley-Gilbert says he’s not an expert in elder care or behavioral health, but he is skilled in his role as a facilitator, and he knows he’s making a difference just by bringing together people who may be able to help each other.

“The members provide the meat; they have done excellent work and make excellent recommendations of organizations in the area or in terms of [coping] strategies,” he told HCN. “That sort of surprised me. But my biggest job is to support people emotionally and to make sure they all get a piece of the pie, a piece of the time.”

And, eventually, find the peace of mind they need to go on with their lives.

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