Being diagnosed with cancer this year helped Kari Bryan realize how different having a physical illness is from having a mental illness, and how much more support is needed for people struggling with mental illness.
It’s easy for people with mental illness to blame themselves, said Bryan, who has bipolar disorder. “You don’t look at cancer and say I have that because I made bad choices,” she said. “It’s easy to look at bipolar and say I’m struggling with this because of this choice I made.”
Since her cancer diagnosis, people have been sending cards and messages. But when she was going through situations with mental illness, she didn’t have that kind of support. “It’s easy for people to feel very alone,” she said.
So she started a chapter of Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Utah County. Twice a month in a classroom at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, a small peer group meets to talk about their own depression and bipolar disorder. There are no mental health professionals and no one is advocating for medication or a specific treatment. One of their own facilitates each meeting, coming up with a topic and leading the discussion.
It also has meetings once a month for family and friends of people with depression or bipolar disorder, where those people can talk about their struggles with friends or family members who have depression or are bipolar. The chapter started the peer meetings in April and in July completed its affiliation with the national alliance, Bryan said. The friends and family group started meeting about a month ago.
“You don’t look at cancer and say I have that because I made bad choices. It’s easy to look at bipolar and say I’m struggling with this because of this choice I made.” —Kari Bryan, coordinator of Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Utah County
Bryan found DBSA online last year and started attending the closest group, which was in Layton.
“It was really beneficial for me,” she said. The group helped her realize that things she’d struggled with she thought were character flaws were actually part of the illness. But driving from Spanish Fork for the meetings was inconvenient and she wanted to make it easier for other people like her in Utah County to have that support, so she started a chapter.
“We’re helping people not feel so alone,” she said.
And the same goes for the friends and family group. People with mental illness aren’t invited, Bryan said. Friends and family need a place where they can share their experiences without hurting feelings, where they can help each other and share ways to handle different situations.
“My own experience with my husband and mom is that the things they’re struggling with are different than the things I’m struggling with,” she said.
The meetings create “a level of support that sometimes caregivers are not getting.”
The meetings haven’t been crowded so far — between 10 and two attend the peer support group and two to three at the friends/family group — but interest has been growing since it recently launched its website and Facebook page, Bryan said.
At its peer meeting this week the topic was ways to handle everyday stress, she said. The group always starts on topic, but sometimes the discussion shifts to other things going on in their lives.
“We really focus on trying to keep meetings a positive place, focused on self help,” Bryan said. “We try to share things with our topics that are going to help people build tools for their own wellness.”
Attendees also have access to educational material from DBSA.
The peer group meets the first Wednesday and third Thursday each month.
The friends and family group meets on the second Thursday. For more information, go to dbsautahcounty.org.