Operating a Peer-Run Depression Support Group in a Congregation

These are materials that can be used to start and run a peer-support depression support group in a congregational setting. They have been successfully used by Rev. Barbara Meyers to set up groups in two different congregations. The original format was developed by Rev. Maureen Killoran in Ashland, N.C.

Characteristics of the support group

  • This is a peer-support group. Leadership is not by a mental health professional.
  • The group is for the depressed person, and not their family member or loved one. There are other models for congregational mental health support groups which include both family and mental health clients. For an example, see Caring Ministries – HELP Mental Health accessible from The Mental Health Support Ministry of the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church.
  • The group meets 2 times a month.
  • The group is closed after the first meeting, and the members covenant to meet for a 3-month period. After the 3-month period, the group will open up for people to leave and for new members to join. It will then re-form for another 3-monrh period.
  • The leadership of the group can be either clergy or lay members. In either case the leaders should also be people living with depression. If laity are to run the group, it is desirable that the leadership is shared by 2 or three people. For lay leaders, there is oversight by supervising clergy.
  • Where the meetings are held is an important consideration. The meetings should be held in a place where privacy is ensured. Either a private home, or an out-of-the way meeting room in the church can work well.
  • Each person to join the group must talk with the designated contact person before coming to a meeting. That is, people cannot simply show up and attend without understanding what the group is and how it is run.

Leading the group consists of:

  1. The month before the start of a new group, publish the fact that the group exists in the newsletter. See Sample Newsletter Article Announcing Depression Support Group.
  2. Collecting the names of interested people and mailing them information about the group. These names come from people directly by:
    • phone in response to the newsletter article
    • to a designated mailing address
    • referrals from a friend or minister
  3. Speaking to each interested person to make sure it is appropriate for them.
    • Ask them why they are interested in the group. The person should identify themselves as living with depression. They don’t have to have a diagnosis, but they do need to consider themselves depressed.
    • Send them the information about the group in a Letter to Potential Depression Support Group Member.
  4. Calling people to remind them before each group meeting. The evening before is best.
  5. At the first meeting:
  6. Making sure that the agenda for the meeting and the rules for the group are being followed. In particular:
    • Use the chalice and the Opening Meditation for Depression Support Group
    • Make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak uninterrupted
    • If there are interruptions, gently remind people of the agenda. A few words of appropriate comment is OK, but any more should be discouraged. Say something like: “We’re listening to Mary.”
    • Don’t let the conversation drift off to something not having anything to do with the meeting. This can happen easily. A gentle reminder usually works.
    • If someone has shared something particularly painful, try and see that the group responds to it during the cross-talk.
    • Say the benediction, holding hands.
  7. Follow up on people who don’t come to the meetings when expected. Make sure they aren’t isolating themselves, or in serious trouble with their depression.
  8. If there are problematic situations, discuss with the appropriate minister

Oversight
Oversight by a minister should be done if the group is led by the laity. Oversight consists of:

  1. Periodic (possibly monthly, or every two months) having a meeting to see how things are going and if there are any problems
  2. If there are problems, help the leaders to resolve them, possibly bringing them to attention of the pastoral care team if appropriate.

Group Continuity
Make sure that the depression support group has leaders. When leaders feel it is time to move on, they should help to recruit their replacement. The leaders should preferably be former group members who know how it operates.

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Referenced Materials:

Letter to Potential Depression Support Group Member

Depression Support Group Purpose and Ground Rules

Depression Support Group Meeting Agenda

Opening Meditation for Depression Support Group

Sample Newsletter Article Announcing Depression Support Group

Letter to Potential Depression Support Group Member

We have established some ground rules, logistics and meeting format for the Congregation’s Depression Support Group so that we can clearly articulate to members and potential members the specifics of running the group. This letter communicates these to potential members.

PURPOSE AND GROUND RULES:

  • The purpose of the group is to provide a community of people who are living with depression. It is for the depressed person rather than their loved one or caregiver. It is a safe place for people to be honest about their situation and its impact in their lives. It keeps people from feeling isolated, and helps them to feel cared about. It empowers people to face their depression and helps give validation that they are OK as a person despite their condition. It provides positive role models and encouragement that it is possible to get better.
  • The format helps us embody our Unitarian Universalist principles of respect for every individual and will intentionally allow the spiritual nature of the group to help in healing.
  • Confidentiality – What is said in the group stays in the group. Who is in the group is confidential. Other than the group members, the only people who will know who is in the group are the parish minister.
  • This is a support group, not a therapy group.
  • To join the group, people need to be able to truthfully say, “I am living with depression.”
  • To remain in the group, people must agree to get professional help if the facilitator and the rest of the group think that they need a therapist. If their Doctor prescribes medication for depression, they must agree to take it, or to work with their doctor to find a more effective medication. If their Doctor or therapist thinks they need to be hospitalized for their depression, they must agree to do so. The purpose of this ground rule is to ensure that the person is not using the group instead of professional help, if they need professional help.
  • Members agree that they will not try to fix any one else’s problem, just be honest about their own circumstances and what works for them.
  • Members are encouraged to tell their therapists that they are in the group.
  • The group is a self-help group where each group member and not the group as a whole, or the congregation is responsible for his or her own actions.
  • Group members do not have to be members of the congregation, but they do have to agree to abide by these ground rules and respect the spiritual nature of the group.

LOGISTICS:

  • The size of the group is from 7-12 members. At the first meeting, there might be more, in case some choose to drop out.
  • The group meets 2 times a month. Currently the schedule is to meet on [ex: the first and third Sunday afternoons at the church.]
  • The group is closed after the first meeting, and will covenant to meet for a 3-month period. After the 3-month period, the group will open up for people to leave and for new members to join. It will then re-form for another 3-monrh period.
  • The fact that a depression support group is open for new members will be published in the newsletter. People will be asked to call the designated contact person if they are interested and want to learn more.
  • We have created a list of books on depression that have been helpful to others in these situations.

MEETING FORMAT

  • The meeting begins with a chalice lighting. Following this, we have an opening meditation that helps the group draw together at the beginning.
  • Each member will begin by saying “My name is _______ and I am living with depression.” (filling in the blank with their first name)
  • Following introductions, each person has about 5 minutes to talk about what is happening in his or her life. This is done without interruption. We will establish a culture that no one goes way over his or her 5-minute time, so all will have a chance to speak.
  • When all members have completed their uninterrupted 5-minute times, we will have a period of time where there is “cross-talk” between group members on topics that people want to discuss together.
  • If a member is concerned about another member and thinks she/he needs to be in therapy, she/he can express concern in a loving way: ex: “I’m concerned about you. Have you talked to your therapist about this?” Since the original covenant was that a member would seek therapy if the group thinks she/he should, this expressed concern in appropriate.
  • The meeting ends with a benediction, and the chalice being extinguished.
  • The meeting will take a maximum of 2 hours.

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Depression Support Group Purpose and Ground Rules

This is read at the first meeting to establish that everyone knows the rules the group will be operating under for 3 months.

  • The purpose of the group is to provide a community of people who are living with depression. It is for the depressed person rather than their loved one or caregiver. It is a safe place for people to be honest about their situation and its impact in their lives. It keeps people from feeling isolated, and helps them to feel cared about. It empowers people to face their depression and helps give validation that they are OK as a person despite their condition. It provides positive role models and encouragement that it is possible to get better.
  • The format helps us embody our Unitarian Universalist principles of respect for every individual and will intentionally allow the spiritual nature of the group to help in healing.
  • Confidentiality – What is said in the group stays in the group. Who is in the group is confidential. Other than the group members, the only people who will know who is in the group are the parish minister.
  • This is a support group, not a therapy group.
  • To join the group, people need to be able to truthfully say, “I am living with depression”.
  • To remain in the group, people must agree to get professional help if the facilitator and the rest of the group think that they need a therapist. If their Doctor prescribes medication for depression, they must agree to take it, or to work with their doctor to find a more effective medication. If their Doctor or therapist thinks they need to be hospitalized for their depression, they must agree to do so. The purpose of this ground rule is to ensure that the person is not using the group instead of professional help, if they need professional help.
  • Members agree that they will not try to fix any one else’s problem, just be honest about their own circumstances and what works for them.
  • Members are encouraged to tell their therapists that they are in the group.
  • The group is a self-help group where each group member and not the group as a whole, or the congregation is responsible for his or her own actions.
  • Group members do not have to be members of the congregation, but they do have to agree to abide by these ground rules and respect the spiritual nature of the group.

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Depression Support Group Meeting Agenda

ENTER. Light conversation until everyone arrives.

LIGHT CHALICE

MEDITATION – Opening meditation read by a group member

NAMING – My name is _________________ and I am living with depression.

SHARING – about 5 uninterrupted minutes for each person

CROSS-TALK between group members.

BENEDICTION:

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage.
For deep down, there is another truth:
You are not alone.

by Wayne Arnason

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Opening Meditation for Depression Support Group

(Speaking slowly and gently)

Close your eyes and let yourself become aware of your body in your chair and your feet on the floor. Bring your attention to your breath. Notice your body expanding and relaxing as you breathe in and out.

(Pause)

For now, let go of the thoughts coming in, of your attention being drawn to other things and tasks that need to be done. There is no place that you have to go right now, nothing that you have to do. Let yourself be right here with yourself.

(Pause)

As you keep your attention on your breath, notice any sensations in your body – – any tension, any emotions, any thoughts or images, sounds or movements, being aware of them as they come and go. Just allow yourself to experience whatever is happening inside of you right now.

(Pause)

As you keep your attention on what is happening inside yourself, there might be, there in that space, a need or desire, something that wants to be expressed. Notice whatever feels important to you right now. Bring forth what would be most helpful, most true. There might be an “I want” or “I need” or “I want to be heard”. This might be a part of you that is rarely shared, rarely exposed, even to yourself. I invite you to speak from that place tonight if it feels safe to you…

(Pause)

In a moment we will be moving our attention from inside ourselves back to the group. Please take your time as you complete your experience of being with yourself. Taking your time, let us know you are finished by opening your eyes when you are ready.

(By Pam Cordano)

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Sample Newsletter Article Announcing Depression Support Group

Depression Support Group Being Formed

A support group for people living with depression is being formed at our congregation. It will hold twice monthly meetings for a period of 3 months starting in October. The purpose of the group is to provide a community of and for people who are living with situations of depression. It will be a confidential, safe place for people to be honest about their condition and its impact in their lives. It will keep people from feeling isolated, and help them to feel cared about. It will empower people to face their situation and help give validation that they are OK as a person despite their illness. It will provide positive role models and encouragement that it is possible to get better. The maximum group size will be 12.

If you are interested in learning more about the group, or would like to join the group, please call or leave a message for [contact’s name].

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