Support groups offer friendly and effective therapy

TitleRe-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

paper cutoutsPicture this: you are facing a crisis. Maybe you just got diagnosed with major depression or a chronic illness, or perhaps you have suffered a significant loss. What do you do? In addition to receiving treatment from doctors and professional, you are likely to seek out emotional support and even advice from family and friends. But sometimes more is needed. When faced with a stressful life challenge, receiving emotional support is an important part of accepting, adjusting and recovering. While your friends or family may be there for you, sometimes they are not able to offer all the help you need or even understand what you are really going through.

So where can you find a safe place where others in the same situation are willing to listen to you, share their own experiences and even offer advice and support?

A mutual aid support group can provide just that. Support groups can be considered “informal therapy” as no referral is required, the meetings are often led by peers, and there is no commitment. A professional may serve merely as an advisor or co-facilitator, and you can be as passive or as active as you’d like. This provides a great deal of flexibility and convenience, which may be exactly what you need to convince yourself it’s worth a try.

How effective can peer-led, mutual aid support groups be? In many situations, research is proving it to be comparable to one-on-one therapy with a professional. One study looked at people suffering from moderate depression and found that there was little difference in the outcome for those attending peer-led mutual support groups versus those working with trained therapists. For bereaved parents, involvement in a support group led to a greater sense of control and decreased depression, guilt and anger. Similar findings were found in groups for the elderly, former mental health patients and those diagnosed with a chronic illness.

The level of participation in a support group does make a difference.Studies have shown that individuals with strong attendance and involvement in the group have the best outcomes. In the area of substance abuse, for example, high attendance at a self-help meeting was related to lower use of alcohol.Additionally, members of support groups who were highly active tended to report higher levels of self-esteem and more effective coping skills.

There are many theories about why support groups work. First, there is the social aspect which contributes to reduced feelings of isolation. There is an instant sense of community when people identify with each other and relate to each others’ struggles.Second, the members of the group offer a pool of knowledge that is a professional is unlikely to have.Support group members have “inside information” cultivated from their own experience, which can be a great help to other members making decisions about treatment, personal matters and more.Finally, there is the effect of “helper therapy”. Those members who contribute to the group by helping others tend to feel better and make better progress in their journey to recovery.

As sensible as all this may seem, people can still find many reasons to avoid attending a support group even if they are struggling. A big reason is stigma.While it can be difficult for people to admit they need help, a bigger fear is admitting this to others. They may feel uncomfortable with nurturing their emotional life and fear that others will view them as week or needy.Worse yet, they may fear being associated with anything related to mental health.

If you feel you could benefit from a support group but have concerns about how people will look at you, remember you are not taking your acquaintances with you to the meetings.They will not be privy to your thoughts and feelings. An advantage of a support group is that the people there are strangers, so you have not reputation to maintain.Plus, a general rule among support group members is “no judgment”. Support groups are places of confidence where you can safely share whatever is on your mind.

Finding the right support group for you may take a little effort, but there are many resources available. Some groups are even available online.The Mental Health Association in Niagara County maintains a list of support groups and even sponsors several in Lockport and Niagara Falls. They also provide periodic trainings for support group leaders and have resources for individuals who wish to start one. For more information, visit www.mhanc.com or call 716-433-3780.


The original publication date was February 15, 2015 under the title Crisis Control: Getting by with a little help from your group. Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

PamePamela.imagela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Local Church Provides Blue Christmas Service to the Community

MHA in Niagara County is sharing this on behalf of the “Blue Christmas Service” organizers.

WinterMost people think of Christmas as a happy time for families and friends. But for some people, the holidays just intensify feelings of sadness if they’re going through rough times. That why the Rev. Dr. Skilbred is offering the fifth annual “Blue Christmas” service at First English Lutheran Church in Lockport, NY.

Whether you are feeling blue, have lost a loved one to death, divorce or illness or are unable to recover your health, job or identity as you once knew it, the Blue Christmas service provides a coming together of people who understand that life has seasons of sadness and that grief needs room to breath in safe places. Members of the congregation and people from all walks of life in the community are invited to attend this special service.

When: Sunday, December 21, 2014

Time: 7:00 pm (sanctuary)

Where: First English Lutheran Church, 185 Locust Street, Lockport, NY.


The Mental Health Association in Niagara County and the Niagara County Department of Mental Health together provide residents of Niagara County, New York,  with Information and Referral services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Need Help? Call the Help Line: (716) 433-3780.

Our Help Book is available as a pdf download from our website.

Please consider supporting the programs and services of MHA Niagara with a membership or one-time donation. You can learn more more about us by visiting our website.

Grief Share Support Groups in Niagara County

Written by Maggie Campbell and Jan Mauk

GriefMost of us understand that, within our lifetimes, we will experience the death of a loved one. When we do, we will learn some painful lessons about grief and loss. Although we may realize that grief is a normal reaction to loss, we may be surprised at the intensity of the uncomfortable emotions that we feel. Grief can leave us feeling overwhelmed as we struggle with the finality of the loss of a person we treasured. We may experience genuine pain and emptiness. Our lives may become disrupted and unsettled. Because we may find it difficult to talk about grief’s effects, the Mental Health Association in Niagara County conducts grief support groups twice a month in both Niagara Falls and Lockport.  Originally formed for those whose loved ones have died in sudden, traumatic ways, the Grief Share support group meetings are now open to all who are grieving.

 Led by licensed mental health professionals trained in both grief and psychological trauma, the groups are all about “the stories.” Participants report that being able to tell their “grief stories” without being judged helps them cope with the sadness, loneliness, longing and other emotions that accompany grief.  In the words of participants: “People in this group ‘get it.’ They know what I’m going through, because they’re going through the same thing.” “It gives me someone to talk to. I found I could breathe again.” “This is one of the only places where I talk about it (grief) anymore because I still need to. I can say things here I wouldn’t say other places. “The stories may be different, but they all come down to the same thing – loss.

With loss being the common denominator in these groups, participants learn what works for others while grieving.  Over time they also become aware of what works for them — how to reduce the stress of grief, how to find comfort and support during the grieving process, how to adjust to a changed life.  They have a chance to talk about their grief and to listen to others.  “It helps me cope. I can hear how others cope.” “There is no pity here,” but there is understanding, compassion, and acceptance.  Group members learn what’s normal about grief and come away feeling relieved. In the words of a participant: “It’s nice to know I’m not crazy!”

Grief Share groups are ongoing, free of charge, and always have a mix of “newcomers” and “veteran” grievers who support and inspire each other. There’s a time for tears but also a time for laughter. People remain in the group as long as necessary and leave when they are ready, which is different for each individual. Group members are encouraged to talk freely about their grief, which seems to help. Sharing the pain seems to lighten the load. All discussions are confidential: “What is said in the group stays in the group.” One group member said, “We’re free to say whatever.”

What do people get out of participating in a support group? The participants answer: “It’s the day I set aside for remembering my son. It’s important to the grief process.” “I came to support a friend of mine and discovered that I have grief issues, too.” “It decreases stress.” “I can laugh and cry a lot.” “I feel safe and secure.”  “It still hurts but not as bad.” “No one prepares us for grief. This group gives me hope.” “I feel embraced by the group. I feel loved.”

If you or someone you know has experienced a loss by death, you are invited to attend one of the Grief Share groups. Meetings are held as follows:

For more information about these and other support groups we offer, please call 716-433-3780 or visit http://mhanc.com/support_groups.html