Monday, May 14, 2007

TO READ: Groups Offer Comfort and Even Joy in the Mental Health Community
I have a lot of mentally ill friends. Maybe you do too. Twenty-one years ago, when I was diagnosed with major depression (which later became categorized as bipolar disorder) I personally knew only one person who I even suspected of having a mental illness. Now people with depression, bipolar disorder and other conditions are everywhere in my life!

I find that as we go through this life-altering experience, we tend to bond to one another for information and support. You may have noticed it in your life too. When you suddenly get a diagnosis, or a prescription, everything changes, and you need someone to turn to -- someone who's been there. That's why I believe the services provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Depression and the Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) (see links at right) are so vitally important. And I know that sense of connection and shared experiences is one of the reasons people seek out my writing class for people with mood disorders at Stanford.

Being immersed in the mental health culture may involve reading about depression or other conditions, recognizing that you have mentally ill friends or relatives, seeking education and camaraderie in support groups or therapy groups and, in a surprisingly high number of cases, holding paid or volunteer positions in mental health advocacy. (In addition to my writing group, I speak as a volunteer on mental health issues for two organizations.) And there is a great deal of comfort, release and joy in these communities.

This weekend I took part in the NAMIWalks for the Mind of America in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The positive vibes and goodwill were everywhere -- from the fact that there were 90-odd teams participating, to the cheers and thanks of volunteers as we finished our 5k walk, to the open-minded chats going on at the booths offering information, books, and items made by people with mental illness. I felt proud to be a part of helping make these illnesses more visible in our still-stigmatizing society.

If you're coping with depression and you're not familiar with NAMI and DBSA, do yourself a big favor and check them out for education on illnesses and treatments, emotional support for consumers and their families, resource lists, legislative and research updates, and especially to learn where there are support groups near you. You don't need to feel alone as you grapple with difficult thoughts and feelings.

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