Aware Groups and how they help Members

By Jenny O’Donovan

Depression is an insidious illness that affects a great number of people in Ireland. It is one of those illnesses that people tend to be humiliated and embarrassed about because the message is often given that depression is only another way of avoiding responsibility. Because of this it is often a hidden illness. Another reason this disorder is called into question is that it is a flexible label to apply to a variety of emotional states by lay and professional alike. It is seen as a catch-all label and therefore loses credibility in the public mind. There is a world of difference in describing oneself as depressed because one is a little “off colour” and being depressed in a way that robs one of the ability to function in even the most minor ways.

Jenny O’Donovan says the AWARE movement was started in 1985 by Dr. Patrick McKeown, a consultant psychiatrist at St. Patrick’s hospital in Dublin. The idea of the groups is to enable people to understand the nature of their illness and to learn ways to deal with it effectively. The groups provide a place where there is support and understanding of the condition. There are groups for family and friends of the sufferer as well because these people can suffer great anguish as they watch their loved ones crumble under the weight of depression.

AWARE is a self-help organisation because the facilitators of the groups are members who have moved to a position where they have been trained to run the groups. They are not therapists and they are not paid a fee since they are part of the group as a member who facilitates.

As with most self-help groups the aim is to be practical and to deal with the day to day issues that come up in the lives of depression sufferers or those who live with them or who are close to them. Both sufferers and their relatives learn to cope with the effects of depression. In groups they meet other people who are coping with similar problems and this helps to combat the experience of isolation.

Another aspect of belonging to an AWARE group is the common bond that develops. For the first time in their lives people might meet others who have a similar life experience and who understand the problems involved with living with depression. Here sufferers can share their experience and experience understanding and support.

This support helps to improve self-esteem and confidence, particularly in the new member. And looking creatively at the issues involved in coping with depression helps the group members to feel part of the Human Race again. For that reason, Jenny says, people look forward to their meeting. The meeting is a place to get help or to share company, without pretence. Tea and coffee are available after the meetings and this is a great help, Jenny says, especially for any member who feels lonely or marginalised. Depression and manic depression are lonely and isolating illnesses.

As the sufferer discovers that there are members who share the same problems, a great feeling of belonging can grow. People who come regularly to the group really seem to benefit. They become the core members and are the bedrock of the group. Individually they become more stable and take more responsibility for their illness. They learn to monitor their symptoms more effectively and in turn can begin to help other members. This helping though is not counselling or therapy, it is the practical sharing of similar experience and the sharing of coping strategies. For example, a member might be exhibiting signs of ‘going high’ that could be recognised by other members and would have this brought into his/her awareness. Perhaps some strategy might be suggested, including making an urgent appointment to see their doctor.

New members of AWARE get a great deal of information about their illness from the facilitators in the group and from listening to the experience of other members. One of the key elements of the group is the transmission of information helpful to sufferers of depression.

Many who have suffered with depression and manic depression come to AWARE with relief, having talked and talked to relatives and friends they have exhausted all the support, AWARE is there to welcome them.

For the public AWARE runs a monthly lecture in St. Patrick’s hospital on aspects of mental illness. Everyone is welcome to these meetings.

AWARE has 11 centres in Dublin and 30 others around the country. At the time of writing (Sept. 1994) new groups are being planned in Wexford, Mullingar and Ennis.