In 2013, I joined the Mental Health Association in Delaware’s Wednesday Pike Creek Depression and Bipolar Support Group.  At the time, I felt like not only was I struggling to fire on all cylinders, I wasn’t firing on any cylinders.  My mind raced night and day with anxieties.  A close friend encouraged me to join a support group; he described the power of a group lies in allowing you to speak out loud your worst fears and get them out of your head.  Attending the first night took courage.  Once I met the other members, I realized the benefits of MHA’s support groups far surpass just getting thoughts out of your head.  I found a place where I heard others share my fears and worries.  I found a safe space where I can share thoughts difficult to voice with family and friends.

My loved ones saw the benefit I was gaining as well.  Through the group, I realized how caught up I had been in my own suffering.  There wasn’t room in my head or heart for anyone else.  I had forgotten that others also need compassion and understanding.  Being a part of a group helped me listen and empathize with others again.  My relationships improved both in and out of the group.  When an opening as a Peer Facilitator arose, I decided to volunteer.  At the time, I didn’t truly understand the responsibility of a Peer Facilitator.  In my mind, I had volunteered to keep time and take attendance.  At my first facilitator training, I realized the full impact depression and bipolar has on individuals and families in the state of Delaware.  Depression can be deadly.  Bipolar Disorder can be deadly.  Through Lifelines training, I learned to identify signs of suicidal thoughts.  I learned how to connect members to crisis hotlines and resources.  Our members know where to turn for emergency assistance.  MHA provides resources to members and facilitators alike.

In my six years as a Peer Facilitator, I continue to grow in my understanding of myself and others.  Wednesday’s Pike Creek group hosts a diverse mix of members.  Some young and some are old.  Some are newly diagnosed and some have struggled for years.  Some members stay for weeks or months during or after an emergency.  Some members stay for years to both maintain wellness and give back to others. We work as a team to maintain the MHA’s guidelines.  We keep the privacy and anonymity of members.  We provide a gently challenging environment, encouraging each other through rough patches and good times.  Our members help each other navigate living with a mood disorder.  We talk about school services, workplaces, job searches, vocational rehabilitation, transportation, and treatment services.  Depression therapy and medical treatments can feel like an alphabet soup of letters: CBT, DBT, ECT, EMDR, FFT, IPSRT, SSRIs, and TMS.  We share our experiences with treatments while recognizing what works for one of us may not work for another.  For skills our members are ready to try and would like to practice, we can serve as a sounding board.  People can practice skills inside the room that make using the skills outside of the room easier.  We practice asking for help, saying no, and using distress tolerance skills.  The group is bigger than any one of us or even a roomful of us.  The feedback I personally get from folks who cannot come on a regular basis is that they gain strength just knowing there is a roomful of people just like them gathering together.  We commiserate in losses and grief.  We celebrate successes such as when a member landed her dream job.  Being part of a support group does not mean that everyone leaves magically happier at the end of the night when the clock strikes 8:30. Being part of a support group is being accepted as you are without judgment.

Because of our positive experiences with MHA, my husband and I have become passionate MHA fundraisers and advocates.  During the annual E-Racing the Blues events, we joined with Jack Akester, former MHA Board member, as captain and co-captains on the A-TEAM raising money and recruiting members.  If you are interested in learning more about the A-TEAM and the E-Racing the Blues event, please click here.  We are proud to have raised awareness for mental illnesses while fundraising $40,000 over five years to support MHA.  We are also passionate advocates encouraging people to talk about mental illness.  Everyone has a personal story of depression, some first hand, some from a loved one, and some tragic.  We learned the importance of reaching out when a friend or even a stranger seems to be suffering. I continue to facilitate the Wednesday Pike Creek Depression and Bipolar Support Group because in my heart I feel lives have changed and lives have been saved by our group.

This post was written by Alison Gilefski.