Back during my training as a psychologist I was confronted with an interesting math problem by one professor. He noted that were about – well, I forget the exact number - let’s say fifty million Americans who will at some point have a diagnosable mental health or addiction problem. He further noted that there were, let’s say again, one hundred thousand mental health professionals in the United States. (These numbers are not correct, but will help illustrate the point). This would mean that, at best, each mental health professional would need to provide treatment to 500 people at any given time to meet the demand.
Given that my debt load from college had begun to exceed what I would have paid for a trip to the moon, this initially sounded like job security to me and made me feel pretty good. However, the professor’s point was, of course, that no matter how hard we try, the mental health profession would never be able to help all of the people who experience a mental illness. So then, he asked, what were we to do?
One answer is that many of the things that help people with a mental illness or addiction don’t come from a mental health professional at all. Support from a person that truly has been there him or herself is one such thing. The act of providing support, whether you are a family member, neighbor, friend, or a stranger often benefits both the giver and the receiver.
In the jargon of mental health research, support is what we call a mediating variable. While various genetic factors and stress factors put certain people at high risk for problems like post traumatic stress disorder, depression, or other psychological problems, not all people who are at high risk for psychological problems actually develop them. One key factor is support. The amount of support in a person’s life often helps determine whether or not an episode of mental illness actually occurs. Said another way, support from someone who cares or is willing to help out can make the difference between feeling sad for a few days and developing severe depression. Or, spending time in a group of people recovering from alcoholism can make the difference between thinking about picking up a drink and actually taking a drink.
One great thing about giving support is that you don’t have to be in perfect emotional shape to give helpful support to other people. Over and over again in my work as a psychologist I have led groups where every single person in the room was hurting. In almost every case, it wasn’t me or my co-therapist who was the most helpful. Rather, it was others in the group who, in spite of their own troubles, ended up providing the best advice and support to others. Experts in group dynamics point out that helping other people is actually one way that we help ourselves feel better.
Most social service agencies, including The Acadia Hospital, offer their buildings as sites for support groups. The purpose is to create a setting that allows the natural healing factors of giving and receiving support to be set in motion. On good days, groups like this are uplifting, as people find others who truly understand and are able to listen insightfully. The only really bad days are when nobody (or almost nobody) comes. Groups do have a life cycle, and even strong groups eventually wind down. But, I believe that in general, the healing power of group support is not tapped to its full potential.
So, try to remember the wealth of healing that lies in the dynamics of support. Support is one answer to the inevitable shortage of mental health professionals. It helps the giver, as well as the receiver. Support can buffer the impact of stress, and prevent a few bad days from turning into an episode of major mental illness. And, it doesn’t require health insurance.
Acadia Hospital offers a number of support groups at no cost. For more information, contact Acadia Hospital at 973-6100 or go to: www.acadiahospital.org for a complete listing of support groups at the hospital. For information on other support groups in the community call 211.