When you’re dealing with trauma, loss, addiction, illness, or disability like a spinal cord injury (SCI) or another illness or injury, it can sometimes feel like a burden that’s too hard to bear alone. Spinal cord injuries often involve trauma, grief, a sense of loss, and other side effects. Ultimately, many people living with an SCI like me are seeking a safe place among others who understand first-hand what they’re going through. If you’ve done any searching online for something like this, you’ve probably come across online or in-person support groups. You may have also heard of some well-known nationwide support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, you may be wondering whether support groups can actually help you.
I’d love to share more about support groups, including my own journey with discovering a support group locally and finding help, friendship, and a sense of community.
My Personal Experience with Support Groups
When I was first spinal cord injured, I wasn’t aware of any support groups nearby where I lived. However, I luckily connected in 2014 with a spinal cord injury support group in Houston through TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital.
Although I was unsure at first about taking part in an in-person support group, I found friendship, resources, and a source of comfort. Plus, when I was diagnosed with an additional disability known as Myasthenia Gravis, my support group contacts suggested a neurologist who may very well have saved my life. This experience alone made me realize how powerful being a part of a support group can be.
Sharing, listening, and connecting with like-minded individuals helped me and gave me a sense of belonging. Through talking to others in the group who had been disabled since childhood, I learned plenty of firsthand helpful tips I probably could not have found elsewhere.
Plus, I began to figure out my true passion for helping others. First, I started out as an attendee and transitioned to a volunteer position. Then I took on the role of the support group leader.
Today, through resources, compassionate understanding, and a neutral approach, I am able to help others with these conditions.
What are Support Groups & How Can They Help?
Support groups are a gathering of people seeking a safe place to share feelings and experiences. Joining a support group gives you a unique opportunity to meet like-minded individuals. You get to listen to personal stories of tragedy and triumph and bond with a group of people who are there to share and not judge. You may also find out about valuable resources and helpful coping methods or share your own. It can feel like a relief to find similarities between yourself and others in the group.
Of course, if you’re dealing with a serious condition like depression or addiction, you may want to see your doctor or a therapist. Friends and family can also provide a role of support during difficult times. However, if they have not been in your shoes, they may not always understand quite the way someone with firsthand experience often can.
Support groups can help bridge the gap between professional medical care and finding familial support. Speaking, listening, and sharing among a group of people who have gone through similar situations can be a very comforting and even educational experience for many. For example, as I said above, if you’re new to living with a spinal cord injury, an SCI support group could be a source of help and support from others also living with spinal cord injuries.
Different Types of Support Groups & Their Differences
Support groups come in different formats to suit a wide variety of people and their unique needs. Ultimately, what type of support group to choose comes down to your needs, ability, schedule, and preferences.
In-Person Support Groups
In-person support groups offer a chance to personally interact with people at a designated setting and time. Sometimes non-profit organizations, hospitals, and clinics offer support groups for certain diagnoses and medical conditions. Oftentimes, they may even host support group meetings onsite.
Other in-person support groups are created and conducted at other safe, neutral settings such as churches and local community centers.
Many people prefer the fellowship of a face-to-face support group meeting, where people have more of an opportunity to chat openly and freely with peers. This personal connection can be comforting and often leads to forming new friendships.
Online Support Groups and Other Options
Thanks to technology, we now have even more accessible ways of meeting up for support groups including online, private Facebook groups, teleconferences (via Skype, FaceTime, or other audiovisual conferencing technology), and live online chat groups. This can be especially helpful for introverts, private people, and people with social anxiety.
If you can’t make time during the week for an in-person meeting due to caregiving or a busy schedule, you may prefer the flexibility of meeting with others online through webinars, online web forums, and private groups on Facebook or another social media platform.
In closed groups online, you have the freedom to chat and share posts in a private environment while meeting new people from all over. If you prefer to stay anonymous, web forums or online support groups may be the ticket.
One potential downside of online interaction is that sometimes written communication can cause misunderstandings and confusion.
Whichever choice you make, you will likely get plenty of helpful information and resources. You may feel less lonely or isolated. Plus, you may even discover you are truly not alone after all.
How to Find a Support Group
Ready to find a support group? Dip your toes into the water by searching online first. Next, you might consider asking a trusted doctor, social worker, case manager, or a non-profit organization for help.
Mental Health America offers a helpful list of specialized support group resources, which may a good place to find a support group or phone support related to your needs.
If you’re living with paralysis, a spinal cord injury, or another related disability, the Reeve Foundation provides some helpful support group resources. Plus, they offer information on how to start and maintain your own support group.
Emotional Healing Through Support Groups
While doctors have the skills to heal and cure some conditions, I believe support groups may have the power to heal a broken heart.
Before I found my support groups, I thought no one could relate to my specific condition and the challenges I faced daily. Now I know many people like me who I would also consider my friends.
What once was a dark time of my life became an experience I was able to share with others. I have been able to bring consideration, kindness, and plenty of resources to new members dealing with recent diagnoses. When I see them begin to heal, I think I feel myself heal a little more too.