If I wanted to bowl I’d join a bowling league. If I wanted to golf, I might join a golf club and read Golf magazine. If I wanted to meet more people with my interests while developing and improving my skills I could do any number of things. One thing I am not inclined to do is to join a support group for family members of people who are labelled somewhere on the mental health spectrum.
I thought it was a good idea once. It is what people are supposed to do, isn’t it? You join these support groups and you learn to cope, hopefully you learn greater compassion for your relative, you meet other people in the same boat so you feel you are not alone.
I would not make a good support group member because I want my relative (a.k.a. my “son”) to relinquish his label, not to embrace it. I don’t want to perpetuate his problems, I want to help him get over them and get on with life. I’m willing to admit that I am part of his problems, and I’m working on that, too. My experience with attending what passed for a support group for families opened my eyes to the fact that support groups perpetuate illness, just like bowling groups perpetuate bowling. Except in the second case that’s a positive, and in the first case, it’s a negative. There used to be stigma surrounding mental illness. Stigma does serve one useful function and that is to make some patients and some families damn anxious to get rid of the problem. Acceptance of a condition that you believe is a biological illness doesn’t have this galvanizing effect.
One thing most support groups do is tell you that medication is important to your functioning. There has been a whole slew of articles recently that medication prolongues depression and turn something episodic into something chronic. See this one from Beyond Meds. Schizophrenia is no different.
Oh, how I suffered whilst faithfully attending the support group. Everybody in the group was suffering. The mothers were tearful, the fathers were stoic. Everybody was scared. If I felt depressed, how was my son supposed to feel hearing his particular condition discussed so gravely and clinically? What was probably a coming of age crisis for him was turning very rapidly into something chronic and maybe even contagious, judging by the fact the room was full. The support group included several psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, psychologists and art therapists in addition to the stricken family members.
This kind of support group perpetutates suffering and turns the sufferer into a chronic patient. I never learned from the support group that all I had to do was to believe my son was well, to take some personal responsibility for the crisis and time would take care of things. The doctors seemed to be the people taking personal responsibility for the outcomes. All questions were funnelled through them, and of course, they dispensed the medications. It was always about the meds, never about how Chris and I could improve on the mistakes of the past.
I might want to join a support group that took an entirely different approach (buck up, you’re fine, maybe you might want to consider exploring certain kinds of non-drug therapies, talk, really talk with each other) because the outcome would be to leave that episode in your life where it belongs – in the past.