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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Peer Support Group

Q. I am a college student in Florida and am interested in setting up a peer run support group for bipolar students at my campus. I am looking for any information concerning planning and training required to operate this type of support group. Could you provide me any information on this?

A. I really commend you on your good intentions! Bipolar disorder takes its toll on as many as 5% of all Americans, leading to considerable loss of social, vocational, and academic function. Providing peer support for your fellow students would be a great service--but, it needs to be done in the right way, as you clearly appreciate.

I would strongly recommend that you work in concert with the professional mental health services that are probably available on or near your campus. Bipolar disorder management is definitely not for amateurs--there is a 19% suicide rate associated with this condition, and sometimes what starts out as peer support for stress may end up as a manic bout, requiring hospitalization. But that doesn't mean peers can't be helpful--it's a matter of knowing your limits and boundaries.

You should be able to get some guidance on this from the psychiatrist or psychologist in your school's student health service. (If your school doesn't provide such services, that's a very serious problem!). It would be important to work out a system that would allow you to refer students who are in serious trouble to the mental health professionals on campus--so that you are not in the position of having to rush someone to the ER, decide whether to notify a parent, etc.

In fact, I would strongly suggest that any student receiving peer group support for bipolar disorder should automatically be referred for professional mental health services, if he or she isn't already getting them. Bipolar disorder virtually always requires medication management, and this means professional help. I'm not trying to discourage you--just protect you! (I worked in the student health service at Penn State many years ago, so I've seen the problems that can arise).

Other sources of good information on bipolar disorder include the Bipolar Disorders Center (http://www.patientcenters.com/bipolar), the Stanley Medical Research Institute (www.bipolarnetwork.org) and definitely, the National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMDA, www.ndmda.org). Your local NDMDA chapter may be able to give you and your peers some important tips on getting help and support, and some chapters might also provide peer training. Best of luck with your good work!

July 2002

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