We all go through periods when everything just feels like too much, and we need some extra support to lean on. But when it comes to issues with your mental health, it can be tricky to know where to turn to find a community that truly understands the nuances of your struggle.
Therapy is an incredible resource for working through your thought process and emotions with the help of a professional. But in addition to the care you get from a therapist, it can also be extremely helpful to find a supportive community that you can turn to when things get tough and you need people to lean on who really get it.
Finding an online community that specifically understands and goes through the same mental health issues can give you a virtual safe space and a place to turn to for comfort and guidance, as well as an opportunity to share your own experience. But how do you tap into that support without going down the Google rabbit hole, and why would you want to in the first place? Read on for answers and suggestions for finding a supportive corner of the internet.
What are support groups, and how can they be helpful with mental health?
Support groups are gatherings of groups of people who deal with the same general experiences, stressors, and concerns. They allow people with similar struggles to provide emotional support, act as sounding boards, and express their fears and anxieties among a community that gets what their experience is like. Ultimately, they can help people who struggle with mental health issues to feel less alone in a circumstance that is often scary and isolating.
“Especially for people with OCD, who think they may be the only person in the world who’s ever had a disturbing intrusive thought, it can be very comforting for them to realize that this is not actually the case,” says Dr. Patrick McGrath, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. “There are other people out there in the world who have also experienced what they’re experiencing, and that can be very eye-opening. You don’t feel alone in the world, and you maybe start to open up a little bit more to other people.”
In addition to giving struggling participants a safe place to vent and feel heard, there’s also evidence that support groups can be a helpful tool that can actually help you heal along with other professional treatments and therapies. For example, one study found that peer support groups helped participants with their overall recovery, though they still needed other interventions with mental health professionals for overall clinical improvement.
While support groups have traditionally been structured as in-person meetings with local communities, online support groups can also be extremely helpful in circumstances when you can’t meet in person. One study that evaluated the effects of video conference support groups for frontline clinicians during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic found that these virtual support groups helped participants vent, validate their feelings, and get support from their peers in a safe way during a high-stress period. Another study found that a combination of both online and offline peer support systems was helpful.
Supportive communities based on your exact mental health issue
1. If you’re struggling with: Anxiety and depression
Try: The online support group of The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
What to expect: The ADAA is a nationwide non-profit that makes it its mission to prevent, treat, and cure several mental health disorders including anxiety disorders and depression. It uses an evidence-based approach to research these disorders, educate people who might be struggling, and connect them to mental health professionals who can help.
Additionally, the ADAA also offers four different online groups that help people connect with others in their specific communities, support them through hard times, and offer support and connection. Their groups include Anxiety and Depression Support Communities in both English and Español, a Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) Support Community, and a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Support Community.
2. If you’re struggling with: Grief from losing a family member
Try: The Dinner Party
What to expect: Losing someone you love is one of life’s hardest obstacles, and it can be isolating and lonely if you don’t have people around you who have also experienced such a profound life change. The Dinner Party is a virtual grief support group that lets you connect with others in a way that works best for you and your journey.
The Dinner Table allows you to choose your own experience. You can either join a group (or “Table”) by exploring the open tables and reading more about the host and the kinds of themes that they want to discuss during your session or find a one-on-one connection in their Buddy System if you’d prefer a smaller group and want to be matched with an individual who is having a similar experience in their grief. Altogether, The Dinner Table is a great option for young adults who are looking for a support group for dealing with grief.
3. If you’re struggling with: Anxiety and substance use disorders
Try: SMART Recovery
What to expect: In the SMART Recovery program, SMART is actually an acronym that stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. SMART Meetings are led by trained volunteers who help guide you through a self-directed, science-based approach to overcoming your addiction through a personalized recovery plan. SMART Recovery’s meetings are free and offered both in-person and online in the United States and Canada, making it easy to connect with people who are going through similar struggles with substance use.
In addition to the support groups themselves, SMART Recovery also has plenty of other resources like handbooks, podcasts, how-to videos, and more to help guide you through your journey.
4. If you’re struggling with: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
What to expect: NOCD is an online platform that offers effective and accessible virtual treatment for OCD. NOCD’s licensed therapists specialize in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, which is often hailed as the gold-standard treatment for OCD. Through NOCD, you can meet with a licensed therapist who personalizes your treatment plan and conducts face-to-face online therapy sessions to learn how to better manage your OCD.
In addition to its network of therapists specializing in OCD, NOCD also offers many other resources for people with OCD including the ability to connect with over 30,000 others in the NOCD Community, a space for people to share their experiences. The NOCD Community has several customization options that help you better connect with people who are going through the same specific areas and struggles of OCD that you are.
How to join: Learn more about our Support Groups here. If you’re interested in learning more about how NOCD’s clinical team can help you through exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, schedule a free 15-minute call. You can also download the free NOCD app to join a worldwide social community of people with OCD and related disorders, whether to support others with similar experiences or to share your own journey.
5. If you’re struggling with: Bipolar Disorder
What to expect: re:MIND is an organization that helps connect people in the Central Texas area who struggle with depression and/or bipolar disorder with others who are dealing with the same struggles. These groups take place throughout the Greater Houston area and allow people to talk about their experiences in a safer space. Additionally, re:MIND also allows friends and family members of people who are struggling with depression and bipolar disorders to attend their support groups, which can help them better understand and support their loved ones (as well as receive support themselves).
These support groups are led by trained facilitators and are also completely free, making them an effective and accessible option for many different people. The ultimate goal is to learn more about how these disorders can affect your life and to provide a safe space for people to cope, manage their experience with bipolar disorders, and learn how to self-advocate.
While re:MIND’s free and confidential support groups were originally designed as in-person sessions that take place throughout the Greater Houston area, it now also offers virtual online meetings that allow residents of the area to participate from afar. It also has a Distance Program that is open for people throughout the entire Central Texas area to participate in.
6. If you’re struggling with: Alcoholism and want to try 12-step programs
What to expect: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is one of the most well-known support groups for people struggling with alcoholism. These free meetings are open to people who want to achieve sobriety and get out of unhealthy alcohol consumption habits using their signature 12 Step Program as well as with support from other members. In addition to in-person meetings, AA also offers virtual online meetings that follow the same structure as traditional options.
One last note: Should support groups be a replacement for professional mental health treatment?
No. While support groups can be an effective addition that can improve your overall wellness, it’s important to note that they are not a replacement for professional mental health treatment. Most support groups are not run by licensed clinicians, nor are they intended to be used for individual diagnosis or treatment.
It’s also important to note that support groups are not the same as group therapy sessions. Group therapy sessions are always led by a mental health professional and can include treatment, while support group sessions are intended more to give people in similar situations a safe place to connect with others. While the two kinds of group meetings may overlap in style or format, their objectives and outcomes are different.
Therefore, it’s important to consider support groups in addition to therapy with a mental health professional for the best results. When used this way, support groups can make a world of difference in helping people going through hard times feel less alone, and providing extra opportunities for people to do therapy “homework” in between sessions.
“If somebody has gone through treatment and is doing very well, a support group could be the thing that helps them maintain their focus on making sure they’re living the life they need to live, and not the life that OCD wants them to live,” says Dr. McGrath. “And if somebody is currently going through treatment, the support group can give them the feel of community that they don’t have in their individual therapy. It can be a safe and supportive space for them to share difficult things, like taboo intrusive thoughts.”