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The groups of mutual aid: Mental health in 1st person

Illustration © Francesc de Diego

Some years ago, together with a group of mates, we decided to initiate this path that is ActivaMent. The reason was that we did not find answers to our needs in the services and entities of the mental health network. Maybe because it is usual that when you receive a diagnosis, you start to be considered as someone unable to manage your own life, even taking care of yourself. The way people looks at you can be very harmful, because there is nothing more incapacitating against the recovery than to assume the “role of sick”. Because of this, one of the basic actions that we considered necessary was to do Mental Health in the 1st Person meaning, for and for us, the people affected by a mental disorder. Our model, in this sense, was the same as “Alcoholicos Anonimos”: people, who share a problem and who, through the gain of experience and accumulated learning, can help each other. In our case, we define ourselves as an active group of people with the experience of mental disorder. With this way of understanding health and recovery, is where Mutual Aid Groups arise, an horizontal way, to give and receive support. This is one of our initial projects and even today is the activity that connects more people to the entity. But what is a Mutual Aid Group (in Spanish, GAM)? It is a small group of people who make regular and systematic meetings, to share their experiences and explain their problems, without being judged by others. A distinctive characteristic is that every one of these people has the common goal of surpassing some shared difficulties. In our case, a mental health problem or disorder. We should highlight that in this kind of meetings there are no outsider professionals so, there is no people other than the people who belong to the group in question. In these meetings everyone speaks in first person of their own difficulties. In this sense, although it may (and should) have beneficial effects on mental health, a GAM is not a therapeutic group. It is not a meeting between friends, since the conversations are thematic, focused on the difficulties that one wants to surpass, and because it is not necessary for people to share an affective relationship outside the meetings. In order to make a GAM work it is only needed respect to each other, the commitment to attendance and confidentiality, and allowing everyone to talk about themselves.

Participating in these meetings allows you to speak openly about what happens to you without fear of repudiation. Knowing that other GAM members and mates have the experience of very similar situations facilitates mutual trust. Nobody is going to be scared of what you explain, because it is very likely that they have lived similar experiences. So when you tell a person that has not lived a mental disorder that you have the idea of suicide, it is normal to react with fear or repudiation. I do not want to imagine what will happen to my mates when they explain that they hear voices in their heads. On the opposite side, this kind of reactions do not occur in a GAM.

Something similar happens with paternalism. Because for mental health problem everyone (who does not know what he is talking about) has a miracle solution or knows, even better than yourself, what people should do. In a GAM anybody seeks to repair the lives of other people by telling others what to do, because people know that if the miracle recipe to recovery exists, they would not be there.

I would not like to end these considerations without emphasizing that mutual aid groups are not only useful for those who are, at that moment, passing a mental health disorder. It is usual for people to ask you, “Why do you keep on going, if you are already recovered?” And the answer is very simple: because it is good for me. For many reasons. Firstly, because sharing my experience with other people helps me to give a sense to what I have lived and that everything has not been an empty suffering. Sharing it allows me to think of it as learning. Furthermore, being recovered does not mean that you are asymptomatic. I still have a sleep disorder, work addiction and occasional anxiety attacks. And I am not free from a possible future relapse.  That is why having this kind of mirror helps me. That way of looking of other people who understand what is happening to me, who do not judge me, but who know from their own experience what it means to learn to live with your symptoms. And finally, because help others makes me feel good.

Hernán Sampietro


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