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10 Tips to Avoid Your Illness Support Group Becoming Depressing

May 13, 2008
If you live with chronic pain or an illness, odds are that you have attended a support group at least once since you were diagnosed. Did it feel something like this?

You feel exhausted and not very motivated to attend the meeting but you decided to go anyway. Find the meeting place, a parking spot and the right room leaves you wiped out. At last you locate a hard, sticky seat. A few people smile at you, but there is a discussion going about now aggravating doctors can be. Soon the topic moves to people comparing how many milligrams and pain killers they need and it feels like your pain is minimized because you are on less than most people. Two people try to convince you to try their juice remedy and you want to run screaming. It's so depressing!

Aren't support groups supposed to be a valuable coping tool?

The answer is yes! Studies completed by Dr. David Spiegel have concluded that support groups do in fact improve the quality of life of those who are willing to attend. Recent studies (CANCER, Sept 2007) have show that support groups do not actually increase the lifespan of one who lives with cancer. But regardless, by having one's feelings about her illness validated, her skills of coping with chronic illness are definitely more improved.

Whether you are looking for leadership program ideas for your small group, or you're just thinking about attending one, you may have cause for concern about how fast a group can go from being a friendly, honest place to a time of complaints and even bickering. Would you like some fresh icebreaker games for small groups to perk people up?

Whether you lead a support group or just participate, chances are you've noticed how slippery the slope is when people start talking about their illness. These ideas will work for any groups, from an Aspergers support group in Dallas to a bipolar support group in Birmingham. Alabama. And they are excellent to have when you are creating a proposal for starting up a support group. Here are 10 ways to make your illness support group get some giggles back between the trials.

1. Cut out some smiley faces and sad faces and glue them back-to-back to a stick or plastic knife. As you go around the circle sharing have each person make sure they are able to hold up both sides of the faces when they are talking about their illness. For example, Mary could hold up the sad face and say, "Preparing for a joint replacement and all the therapy involved afterwards is a bit scary." (Then flip it over) "But the upside is my family and friends are already volunteering to come over and help me out around the house."

2. Redefine your conception of what counts as indoor games for small groups. For example, start a JOY box and ask everyone to bring an item for it that someone else can take home with them. Have each person choose an item at the end of the meeting. It could be a silly toy, a cartoon, a rubber fish, or great book, a poem, a note someone sent that encouraged you, or even a funny DVD. Ask everyone to return them at the next meeting and exchange it for another item. Refresh the box up now and then.

3. Let your small group write a silly theme as their next icebreaker. If anyone plays the guitar, have them help. You can pick a well known song. Write your own lyrics. Have fun with it and open or close each meeting with it. Comedian Anita Renfroe has a fun parenting song to get you brainstorming.

4. Bring corny props that you use during meetings. Don't make anyone feel pressured to use them (some people may not come again if you make them put on a clown nose.) But have them available and encourage silliness before getting down to the nitty gritty of why you're really there. Oriental Trading Supply has thousands of fun items to use at a reasonable cost.

5. Though it can be a challenge, don't let your group tune into a platform for any member to talk continuously about his or her disease, the treatments, alternative treatments and even complaints. If someone tends to dominate the conversation, let your group know you are implementing the use of a timer to make sure everyone has equal opportunity to share. Set whatever guidelines you wish, for instance, you could allow people to vent for sixty seconds on any topic. Or they could share about an alternative treatment they've found useful, but when the timer rings, time is up!

6. Ask everyone to bring an item to include in a gift basket encouragement for someone else. It may be someone who cannot attend the group someone having surgery, or a friend of someone recently diagnosed. Put your ideas together about things people would like. Don't forget personal notes or even sticky notes on a small gift can mean the most.

7. Have a fun night out. You can act your age and go to a nice sit-down restaurant or head over to Chuck E. Cheese for some pin ball. It can definitely be a successful icebreaker for small groups because people who haven't opened up much in the group may feel relieved to have this environment to get to know others.

8. Hand out articles and other resources that encourage people to thrive despite their illness. You can find fun items through the National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week website like "My illness is invisible but my hope shines through."

9. When you schedule guest speakers, remind them that you want to provide the most positive outlook as possible, while still being practical. Invite them to pass out props, encouraging articles. Listen to your speakers before scheduling them. Some illness speakers are quite depressing.

10. Focus on things that your group can actually do that will change things, since they may feel so unable to control their illness. If you can't physically participate in the local walk for charity, could you work at a table handing out snacks or doing registration? Find events your group can participate in to feel like they are doing more than just complaining about their predicament. Take advantage of the energy that teens with chronic illness often have to motivate support groups to get involved in outside projects.

Support groups can provide some of the most influential relationships that can help one live successfully with chronic illness. The environment of the group, however, can make or break its usefulness. With these few simple tips, your group can be a refuge and a place of true relaxation, creating an special group for people to create friendships that could just last as long as the illness, perhaps indefinitely.
About the Author
Find more ideas for icebreakers for small groups with your free download of 200 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend from "Beyond Casseroles" by Lisa Copen. Just sign up for a weekly encouragement ezine, HopeNotes.
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