Peer support is at the heart of Bipolar UK’s aims and activities. Sarah Owen finds out why attending conferences and Support Groups can be such positive experiences.

Sarah and Amanda, authors of Bipolar Disorder The Ultimate Guide

Alongside my cousin and co-author Amanda, I hosted a book table at the recent Bipolar UK Conference. From my vantage point, occasionally I would look up and scan the room, and each time without fail, marvelled at the wonderful atmosphere.

On the train on the way home, I felt my spirits had been lifted, which got me thinking about what it was that had caused this effect. Was it, I wondered, because the ‘speeches’ were very good and that I’d learnt a lot and felt inspired?

Or was it the fact that I’d spent the day in the company of people who could really understand bipolar disorder and who were compassionate and non-judgemental so everyone in the room felt understood?

Feeling understood

I know many people who have benefitted from spending time with others who have been through similar experiences. My friend Hannah goes to a drug rehabilitation group every week where they discuss how they’re feeling. ‘If you’d have asked me a few months ago to talk to complete strangers, I’d have laughed’, she says. ‘But now I look forward to the chance to get things off my chest. People listen and even if they don’t say a word, you know they’re supporting you.’

And, of course, I know lots of people with bipolar disorder who say that attending Bipolar UK’s Support Group meetings has been an important part of their journey.

Support Groups – the benefits

Research shows that people with a mental health diagnosis who join a self-help group spend significantly fewer days in a psychiatric hospital, have higher self-esteem and cope much better with their condition than people with a mental health diagnosis who don’t join a group. Fiona Cooper, Bipolar UK’s Development Manager who works alongside volunteers to set up and run groups across the UK, believes there are several reasons why.

Meeting people is helpful. ‘Quite often when we first speak to somebody on the phone who’s just been diagnosed with bipolar, they haven’t met anyone else with bipolar but when they attend a group session, they can see that the others haven’t got two heads, that they’re ‘normal’ but they just happen to have a bipolar diagnosis.’

It’s a safe environment. ‘You don’t need to say a word if you don’t want to, although everyone does get the chance to speak. We try to create a non-judgemental environment where everyone who attends feels comfortable, supported and accepted by their peers. We also make sure that everyone is aware that anything that’s shared with the group is confidential.

There’s no obligation. ‘Because joining a group doesn’t require a referral, you can turn up whenever you feel like it, but you don’t need to turn up if you don’t feel like it. You can find one you like, and you only need to use it when you want to.

It’s free! ‘Groups are free to attend and are open to all individuals affected by bipolar including those with a diagnosis, those pre-diagnosis, their family members, friends and carers.

My local support group has been my lifeline for the past 6 years. I attend all the meetings and social events and have made a wonderful bunch of friends. I can’t imagine that I’d be coping with my condition so well if I didn’t have such amazing support just round the corner.

You have the opportunity to make friends. ‘People with a mental health diagnosis sometimes tell us they can feel isolated, so joining a group exposes them to a group of people who they have at least one thing in common with. Many groups run various social activities. Joining can also provide a sense of belonging that comes with being part of a group.’

You have the opportunity to gather information. ‘There’s usually a lot of information about bipolar disorder available at group meetings. Many groups arrange different speakers – perhaps a local pharmacist or psychiatrist. Joining a group is a good way to increase your knowledge base about the condition, which in turn empowers you to feel comfortable to ask mental health professionals questions and stay in control of your treatment path.’

Find out more about Bipolar UK's Support Groups