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Mental Health Online Self Help Groups

by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W.


Today I want to address mental health consumers and their families who use self help groups. My message is to be very careful when you enter an online or offline support group. That may be a bulletin board, email support group, a meeting where people meet face to face, etc. 

There are many different reasons that people seek out these "groups." Some go just to listen to other people so they won't feel so alone. Some go as a place just to vent. Some come with a real desire to grow and change their lives. Some are there just to please someone in their life but don't want to be there. There are many other reasons people seek these groups out. 

I think the mistake we make many times is assuming that everyone there is there to promote positive changes for themselves and learn new and different ways to live their lives. We assume they are desiring inner growth and healing. However as many of us have found out, this is not the case. People go to these groups for all kinds of reasons and many times the people themselves are not even aware of why they are there. 

I get letters from people all the time complaining how their "group" is making them miserable instead of helping them. People are say horrible things to them, getting angry at them, etc. 

In the family groups I hear this all the time. "All they do is complain about their partners. No one ever talks about themselves or looks within themselves."

Whether you have a mental health disorder or are a family member, you must remember that when you go into that group, you and most everyone in there came in with your unhealthy behavior. Only you haven't been into recovery very long so you are not even aware of which behavior of yours is healthy and which is unhealthy. 

I had to learn this myself when I joined my first mental health email support group. I had no idea which of my behaviors was ill and which wasn't. Honest! However I learned about myself from listening to other people and relating to many of the things other people said. I couldn't even "go off" on people in the group or we would be penalized. That rule in and of itself helped to teach me how to communicate with others without going off on them. I simply couldn't flame people!

Now if you are a family member and you come into your new group with the old unhealthy behavior of avoiding thinking and talking about yourself and only talk and complain about your partner, you are likely to present yourself this way to the group initially. Correct? This is the only way you know how to cope in your situation thus far. You are doing the best you can with the tools you have and you are not aware there is another and possibly better and healthier way to live. 

Chances are very high that most people in the family group are going to present themselves in the same way - the only way they know to cope. However this behavior didn't work and doesn't work because if it did you and they wouldn't be in the support group to begin with, correct?

Some families talk as if their happiness solely depends upon their partner's behavior. They believe that their happiness is outside of themselves and in someone else's hands. 

Anytime you feel that happiness, peace, harmony, etc. are somewhere outside of you, you are on the wrong track and you will not find them there. They simply are not there to find.


Happiness has always been inside of you and you have always had the opportunity to grab on to it but weren't aware of this and if you were, you didn't know how to bring it out.

Just like a partner of an alcoholic may say "when Marsha stops her drinking, then I will be happy and my married life will be smooth." So you try to do everything you can to get Marsha to stop drinking because this is the "key" to your happiness. 

Chances are more if Marsha got sober you wouldn't know what to do with yourself or how to act. 

So if you are a family member and you are in a group where all everyone does is complain about their partner, you are only allowing yourself to feel a little bit better so that you can stay in this unhealthy and unhappy situation. Plus you are not learning that your present coping skills are not healthy.

If you were in an unhappy marriage without sex and got into an affair with great sex, your marriage could possibly last longer maybe? But are you really working out the issues?

I encourage you to seek out groups where there are enough people in there that are far enough into recovery so that they can teach you recovery skills. 

Families - get your focus off of your partners and on to yourselves. What do you want out of life? What brought you into this relationship? What attracted you to this partner? What needs to happen for you to become emotionally healthy? Look within. You will of course have to assess whether your partner is ready to make a commitment to getting help, both medical and counseling because this will have an influence on your choices in life. 

Instead of saying "Sharon has a horrible mental health disorder. She does this and this and this and blah, blah blah." Turn it around and say "What is it about me that attracted someone like Sharon and is attracted to someone like Sharon"?

Mental health consumers - are there many people in your "group" that are into recovery? Are there folks giving you hope for a brighter future or are you in a group of people who are all brand new in recovery and everyone is depressed and not doing well? Now of course you want to be honest with the group and share and be there for each other. That what this is all about. But if your group is solely people who haven't gone far into recovery you will begin to believe the illusion that there IS no recovery and that you will only have gloom and doom to look forward to. 

Whether you are a family member or a consumer, look for someone well into recovery and study them. Talk to them. Let them encourage you. LEARN from them and stop the merry-go-round habit of repeating self destructive behavior that gets you nowhere. 

There is a "rule" that physicians go by and that is to "do no harm" to their patients. When you are in your "group," remember also that most everyone in there is hurting. Many are near suicide - more than you realize. Do no harm. Let me repeat myself. Do no harm. 

That sounds easy to do but when we are hurting it is easy to hurt someone when we really aren't meaning to. Remember how I felt when I started the mental health group? I had to really fight flaming people. I still fight that but not as severely. 

Remember also, if you get your feelings hurt in a "group," you are one among many and chances are very high that the event had nothing to do with you. Know from the start that many people in the group are not well and sometimes when folks aren't well, they hurt other people - sometimes horribly. Sometimes people even set out to purposely use people for their own gain and you must keep your eyes open for these people.

Here many of you have trust issues to begin with and I am telling you to come to groups not trusting people, but in fact I am doing just that. Get to know them well before you give them your trust. Also remember that many people who are so-called "well" and perhaps in charge of things may be the person you need to trust the least. 

For those of you reading this article who are on bad terms with anyone in your group, write them a letter right now and tell them how much you appreciate them. Tell them something you really like about them. Life is short. It doesn't matter what someone said or who did what. The event is over.

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