Experiences of support groups for depression

Various mental health charities and organisations run local support groups throughout the UK. Support groups provide a forum for people with depression to meet, talk, share experiences and learn more about the condition and its treatments. There is usually a facilitator to help the group run well. One advantage of gaining support from such a group is that you can still attend even if you feel very unwell: you do not have to contribute anything since others will understand how you feel. Some people also use Internet based support groups and chat rooms (see 'Self-help resources for depression').

As one older man said, depression is an “exceedingly isolating” condition and so breaking through that isolation is very helpful. Many people we talked to eased their isolation considerably by attending a support group in their area. For instance, one man who was very isolated by his depression was able to make a friend at a support group for people with chronic fatigue.

Some people who did not have a support group in their area actually became involved in organising a local group. One woman (who had become aware of the remarkable sense of solidarity between patients from very different backgrounds in hospital) was asked by her social worker to help organise a support group. She benefited from the experience in that she felt useful, helped others and felt she was giving “something back”.

The people we talked to benefited greatly from participating in support groups. Some began to build confidence about being with other people, which then helped them to participate in other social activities. Others learned about local resources, such as day centres, from support groups.

What many valued most was the sharing of experiences with others who understood what depression was like. For instance, one man gained a lot from the equality and bonding with his support group. Another man could work through his feelings of being different, as well as concerns about how to cope with social pressures' in going to a support group, he discovered that people with depression were usually sensitive and intelligent, rather than 'missing something' as he had originally thought. This discovery helped him to be more accepting of himself. One woman discovered that it was the mutual support over a period of years that was important to her.

Some problems were reported with depression-related support groups. They tend to rely on the energy of one or two people, and so they can start up and close down according to the priorities of those people. Although support groups frequently cover interesting topics, sometimes people find that members can take issues out of context, such as discussions about the right medication to take or potential side effects.

Support groups do not appeal to everyone - several had noticed that some people had only ever come along once. Groups can also get bogged down in discussions of negative experiences - one woman, who did not find the discussion in her local support group helpful, left with the impression that “they all seemed worse than me”. Support groups for people with manic depression can have a lot of humour, but depressed people might have trouble coping with people who seem too 'high'.

Skilled facilitation of the support group is the key to avoiding situations where the group gets caught up in unproductive discussions. It was suggested that people look for a group that has a skilled facilitator. Some facilitators are also attempting to move beyond the mere comfort of sharing of stories. For instance, one facilitator we talked to was keen to incorporate the sharing of various healing techniques to combat depression.

Last reviewed September 2017.


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