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Finding Strength Together: The Power of Support Groups for NDIS psychosocial participants


men and women sitting in a circle talking and supporting each other

Peer support groups are one nourishing way for NDIS psychosocial participants to connect with community.  There are many types of community.


Community can include the people in the physical homes and neighbourhoods or town in which we live, the people in our workplaces, education institutions, clubs, sporting, artistic and spiritual groups.  The one place that is often overlooked is peer support groups. 


What is a peer support group?

These are different to groups where people are mindlessly congregated together for group activities for help provider convenience.  Peer support groups are when people deliberately seek out people with a shared health or life experience.


Peer support groups are usually started by someone who has struggled in their own experience or that of a close family member or friend.  Their own struggles lead them to want to create a space for other people with this experience to find the support they needed at the time.


Peer support groups usually meet on a regular basis online or face to face.  There is usually a designated start and end time.  Some meet in a public place like a library, community centre or park.  Some are hosted by an organisation. Some peer groups are free, and some may have a cost to cover catering or guest speakers.


The format of the support group will vary depending on who is hosting it and the needs of the group.  Some groups are more structured with a specific format they follow every time.  Some groups have guest speakers or a different designated topic each time. Some groups might be more informal, and members take turns sharing what has happened to them since the last meeting and ask for any recommendations or advice from the group.


All peer support groups will have different group rules.  Some of these rules may be explicit and even written down.  Some will be implicit and may take some time to figure out. There will usually be rules around respecting other people, what can and can’t be talked about and confidentiality. It is important to contact the organiser before attending a group to clarify what to expect and see if it could be a good fit for you.


Benefits of peer support groups:

Peer support groups reduce feelings of social isolation.  Suddenly, you're surrounded by people who get you, who accept you, flaws, and all. The camaraderie, the nod of understanding from someone who's walked a mile in your shoes shows you, you're not alone in this journey now there is a whole squad cheering you on.


Seeing people who are further along in their journey can help provide hope and confidence that you too can survive your experience.  That sense of belonging, that feeling of being seen and heard is priceless. Validation is a powerful elixir for the soul.

Support groups can be for sharing problems, coping strategies, tips, and tricks for surviving and thriving despite what life throws at you.  Knowing which medical or helping professionals have been tried and tested by others can save valuable time, energy, and money. Knowing those to avoid too is also priceless. 


Sometimes the sanctuary created through the bonds of belonging and shared experience mean that support group members don’t always talk about the condition that brought them to the group.  Not having to explain yourself lifts a burden off your shoulders so you can talk about other things and make jokes that outsiders wouldn’t get. 

 

How to find peer support groups:

  • Neighbourhood centres are a good starting place to find support groups in your local area. 

  • Churches and faith communities also host support groups which may be open to external people.

  • Meet up is a platform to find online or in person groups or start your own. 

  • Facebook support groups can be valuable in themselves, and sometimes these groups can have live meet ups as well. Local area Facebook pages are a good place to ask if anyone knows of a group in your area.

  • Health Direct is a government funded website with a section where you can search by post code for support groups.

  • Support Groups Queensland receives government funding to provide an online directory and support to existing support groups and help to start new groups. Most other states have a similar organisation.

Some health professionals are aware of peer support groups.


Cautions!

Peer support groups are usually run by volunteers who experience the same health or social issues themselves.  This means that they may not have the time or energy to respond to contact outside the time of the support group. This means it is useful to have realistic expectations of their capacity and ask if there is anything you can do to help.  That could be bringing a packet of biscuits to share or helping set up or pack up the chairs.


Peer support is different to medical or professional advice which can be a benefit and a caution, so members need to discern what will work for them from any information offered. Some peer support groups are cofacilitated by professionals.  This has an advantage of providing support for the peer facilitator.  However, it can diminish the equal power of a purely peer group. Two peer support groups that all mental health help providers need to know about are the Alternative to Suicide Groups and Hearing Voices Groups.


ALT2SU - Alternatives to Suicide groups

Alternatives to Suicide groups are revolutionary spaces that challenge the conventional approach to discussing suicide. Unlike traditional interventions that often focus solely on prevention, these groups offer a unique platform for individuals to openly explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to suicide without judgment or threat of being taken to hospital involuntarily.


There is no assumption that suicidal thoughts or feelings are a symptom of mental illness. Each person is seen as capable and is believed.  There are no barriers to entry and no names recorded or notes kept. One of the key values unlike the mainstream crisis management system, the group is responsible to people, not responsible for people.


Hearing Voices groups

These groups are for people who have visions or hear voices or who sense things that other people don’t, can come together for support.  There is no need to pathologise these experiences or label them mental illness.  The Hearing Voices Network provides links for where to find groups and how to start a group including training and resources.


Consider whether all the help providers in your organisation and the help seekers you see are aware of peer support groups as an option for community connection and belonging.

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