It’s been 8 or 9 years since I led a parent support group, yet every story, every success and every frustration of each group member has stayed vividly with me . The two groups I ran were for parents like me — their children and teens had mental health needs. They came looking for much more than support. They needed to find elusive resources, locate smart, competent therapists and figure out how to make their child’s school day better. But they got support, too. And it was from parents who had also been blamed for an illness no one seems to quite understand and who persevered until they found a way to improve their lives. And even after they found needed resources, therapists or strategies, most stayed for the support.
When I stopped leading the groups it was as if I’d stopped watching a favorite soap opera. I wanted to know how things turned out and I missed being able to hear each installment. While I’ve heard from one former group member or another intermittently, 2009 was a banner year. This year, I heard from 4 different parents who had attended that group and they wrote to let me know how well their children and families are doing. I was amazed that they could track me down — and wanted to! In these busy times, I was also touched that they took the time to send a card or email and made it a priority. Wow, people are just amazing.
First, I got a card last January from a couple that had since moved back to the South. He was in the military and when their then-13
year old daughter began acting out, the base chaplain suggested they apply for services and somehow they also found my group. The children’s mental health world was very different from their military world and they did their best to learn what they needed. Their daughter had just managed to complete treatment when their military transfer came through. And that was the last I expected to hear from them. So when I got a card last year telling me how well the whole family was doing, I was surprised and very pleased.
Over the remaining months of 2009 I heard from three more group members. One emailed to share some resources that she hoped I could pass on to families or use on our web site. She took the opportunity to tell me how her sons were doing and how much the group had meant to her. “You saved our lives,” she wrote. Another emailed about her daughter — who she worried would end up dead, in jail or lost somewhere in the system. But she is now a mother herself and a wonderful mother at that. As she cares for her young son, she tells her own mother that she learned how to nurture “when you thought I didn”t notice.” This fomer group member wrote that her grandson is now in preschool and loves it! When her daughter thanked her for helping her with his IEP, she wrote, “I couldn’t help quietly thanking you for all your support through the years.”
In November I got another unexpected email. This mom had attended the group and always stopped the conversation when she announced that she had 6 daughters. I think we were all imagining what the laundry must be like! She wrote that the daughter who was “my reason for coming to the meetings” was taken off all her meds when she was 18 and was thought to have been misdiagnosed. Her life has changed dramatically and she is now happily married with 3 children. She ended her email by writing, “I just was thinking of you and decided to look you up and say hi.”
Those parents in my long ago group and hundreds of thousands of others are searching for professional supports and treatments. And they should But I think that we underrate how much impact a support group and an ongoing supportive relationship with peer — in this case other parents — can have. There’s only one study that I’ve found about the value of support groups (that study concludes that parents who attend support groups seek out a greater range of services) but of course, it’s a topic that’s rarely studied.
So anecdotal information will have to do. So many services are short term, intensive and focused on the child yet it’s parent support that is often a lifeline and helps the family build a bridge with new skills and needed information. It’s hard to measure how important groups can be, but for the 4 people above, they certainly have made a difference.
Have a great 2010!!