In the past several months, I’ve been trying out peer support groups, both online and offline, as part of a personal exploration for treatment. As a teenager, I was forced to go to therapy and counseling which I did not take seriously. As an adult, I’m grateful for my family’s attempts to get me adequate support. It’s nice to finally be able to seek help on my own terms.

On my last work term, I attended many of the events organized by OCD Bay Area. Huge thanks to my sister Jenny who researched the group for me! I frequently attended the biweekly support groups at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland. Although the trek to Oakland from San Francisco was a little long, the support group hosted by Tim Quinn was worth it. Every session, I learned about new resources in treating OCD – academic literature, workbooks, therapeutic exercises, etc. The candid stories told by the group members hit close to home. We laughed, we cried – but we didn’t do it alone. It was comforting to be vulnerable with people who knew, in some shape or form, what I was experiencing. At every session, I was the youngest member. The other members, often middle-aged, were like mentors to me. Their insights challenged me to put my own experiences as a young adult into a broader perspective.

Everyone likes to believe their suffering isn’t relatable. “You can’t possibly imagine what I’m going through” is commonly said. Even though mental illness and other forms of pain are deeply individual experiences, it doesn’t mean people can’t relate and show empathy. This truly made sense to me after attending the group.

I wish there were more consistent faces each week. It was great meeting new people, but the consistent members had to constantly re-introduce themselves. It felt like the group couldn’t move into topics that were more advanced or not yet covered.

That’s the tricky thing about organizing a support group – getting people to attend regularly. People have other commitments. People are also lazy. Ironically, commuting to attend these groups is often stressful.

Near the last month of my work term, Mark Freeman (he has an awesome YouTube channel on OCD stigma and treatment) introduced me to an online support group for anxiety hosted by Jennifer Chu and Andrew Farrelly of the Self-Help Resource Centre. Each week on Google Hangouts, we took turns facilitating discussions on different themes.

We covered the following themes: holiday stress, compulsions and unhealthy coping strategies, managing relationships and boundaries, social media, and managing situational anxieties and triggers. It was great seeing the same faces each week and being able to build on new lessons and strategies. If you’re interested in joining, email the organizers!

Having the support group online was also convenient. I could easily duck out of the office or modify my student schedule to attend the sessions. During my work term, I booked private meeting rooms at work to attend them. On a random side note: these rooms had motion sensor lights. I had to wave my arms in the air like a mad woman to re-activate them after sitting too still. When I got back to Waterloo, I was finally able to attend the sessions in properly lit rooms. Hurrah!

Like any form of human interaction, nothing beats meeting people in person. Although Google hangouts ran pretty smoothly, it was hard maintaining a dynamic discussion without people interrupting each another and then saying “oh sorry, you speak first”. Oh Canada and our emphatic apologies.

What I liked about both groups was that review notes were shared after each session. These notes had a summary of the major points discussed including handy resources. At the end of the day, I am grateful for having experienced both kinds of support groups. I’ve met a lot of amazing people who are compassionate, brave, and self-motivated. They inspire me to take more initiative with my mental health. I definitely recommend trying out both types of support groups! They are usually free! In general, support groups add a social dimension to treating mental illness, which makes the process less lonely and intimidating.

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