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Having a family member with a mental illness, such as schizophrenia or manic depression, can be stressful and isolating. Therefore, many family members are forming or joining support groups nationwide in order to talk with people who have similar experiences. 

The popularity of support groups is based on evidence that support programs help family members cope with a loved one's illness.  Phyllis Solomon, PhD, a professor of social work and social work psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, recently studied 225 family members of persons with a serious mental illness.  She found that belonging to a support group tends to increase a family member's ability to deal with the illness.  "These support groups give family members a sense of community and belonging as well as coping strategies," she says.  Her study concluded that mental health professionals should encourage family members to use the support provided by community-based organizations or to form their own groups if none are available.

How are support groups organized?  Typically a mental illness support group meets more than once a month and is free, however membership in the sponsoring organization is usually encouraged.  A few groups are conducted by health care professionals, but usually they are led by volunteers who are family members of people with mental illnesses.  There are groups for family members and friends of people with mental illnesses.  There are also separate groups for teenage relatives, adult children, spouses, and family members of individuals with mental illness who are in trouble with the law

Support groups can do more than provide comfort and an opportunity to express frustration - they can offer concrete information.  "Support groups provide information that people usually can't get elsewhere as they try to navigate their way through the health care system," says Sue Batkin, Director of Support Services for the New York chapter of Alliance for the Mentally Ill/Friends and Advocates of the Mentally Ill.  She explains that participants provide each other with valuable and insightful information about treatment programs, housing options, and the long term effects of medications.  "Ultimately, support groups empower the family members, making them better advocates." 

Batkin says she has witnessed many people in support groups gradually develop the ability to manage the mental health care system as well as their relationship with a relative who is mentally ill.  "Siblings, for example, can feel a tremendous burden and worry that they have to give up their own life to care for their brother or sister.  A support group can help them create boundaries and figure out what they can and can't do."  There are support groups available around the country for mentally ill people and families of the mentally ill.  I would suggest contacting your local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

My wife has manic depression and schizoaffective disorder and I have attended several support groups.  These support groups have helped me to better understand her disease which in turn allows me to help her through the good times and the bad.

Source: Family Support by Eugene Wagner

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