The power of community and online support groups
In 2012, I went to see my GP as I knew something was wrong with me. I started having panic attacks and felt compelled to do things that, at the time, seemed out of character. I was quickly diagnosed with OCD and anxiety. The doctor offered me medication and a TalkPlus phone number to talk through my issues and rushed me out of the door.
Like most men, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to another person. I’d already confided in the doctor, and yet, still didn’t know why this was happening to me. I left the clinic, told no-one and over the years, struggled and self-educated myself. That is until I found a Facebook group called Friends with OCD.
The culture on American sites is very different from the UK; they offer support but more than anything, they normalise what you’re going through, helping you feel normal again. After a time in this group, eventually, I joined another one called Me4Mental (an Irish mental health charity). The level of compassion they showed was amazing. What’s more, they were the only group during that time that I’d found who didn’t appear to pass judgement. While there are many well-known, well-meaning support groups in the UK, none of them felt like a true community.
One thing we know for certain is that poor mental health isn’t going to go away, but if we all pull together, all support each other, all care for one another, we may all pull through one of the most difficult periods in our living history and be stronger for it
By December 2020, certain world events, including but not limited to, the pandemic, had massively increased feelings of loneliness and anxiety in the UK. From work friends to Facebook friends, everyone was showing signs of struggling with little hope on offer. We all were thrust into the unknown and while I was fortunate enough to leave my job and become a stay-at-home dad, I appreciated that not everyone was as lucky as me.
“We will make you a cheesecake from life’s lemons”
The decision to set up a group for people in my local area started initially as something for my Facebook friends struggling: I wanted to help them in any way I could. I shared it on two other groups and within a week had gained 100 members. It became clear that despite the hundreds of existing groups, there wasn’t one that was for the Hampshire area.
My goal in starting Friends with Anxiety in Hampshire and Surrey was to take the best from the two sites that helped me and keep it simple. Offer help, be an ear if needed and don’t judge anyone. Community spirit is important to me; I want the group to feel more like somewhere to chat about mental health in an open and safe environment with friends, rather than a traditional ‘support website’.
If the group had a motto it would be, ‘we will make you a cheesecake from life’s lemons’. Positivity is so important in life and especially mental health: it’s a focus point for the group that separates us from the rest.
One of my biggest surprises was just how many small services, charities and non-profit organisations are available, yet no one has heard of. Many have actually joined my group offering their time and services for free. I firmly believe that if people suffering from poor mental health left their GP with a directory of local services that could not just treat but explain mental health conditions to you, it would save a lot of unnecessary suffering.
A lot of men tell me that they feel they’ll be judged by women and find it hard to speak out at first. The feedback from the group is that they find it supportive when people thank them for opening up and sharing their stories, and so they start posting more.
The group now has over 500 members. We have organised walks, anonymous posting options, live Sunday quizzes, games and competitions, local mental health service directories, crisis phone numbers, birthday shout outs, a charity of the month and mental health Fridays. Members frequently tell me and my ever-growing moderator team that they feel safe in our group, they don’t feel judged, discriminated against or unsupported when they post. I always thought this was given on a support site, but sadly that's not always the case.
The group wouldn’t be where it is today without its members and the amazing moderators; I couldn’t run it without them. One of the most rewarding aspects of setting this group up has been watching friendships form and hearing how it has helped members pull themselves out of a dark place. It’s lovely to see peoples lives changing from a simple idea.
Encouraging men to talk about mental health
85% of my group are women, showing that talking platforms are still not as popular, or perhaps even considered, with men. Interestingly in our group, the majority of posts are made by men, with the ‘bare your soul’ posts nearly always being done by them. Whereas women tend to post less but comment and engage more. This to me says that once men break through the barrier and accept they need support, they will actively look for it. Sadly at the moment, not enough take that first plunge.
The future of my group will be to continue keeping it a safe space for all, supporting our community and being involved with charity projects. Currently, we are looking to support Parity, Solent Sports (a male mental health organisation using sports as a way of therapy), Hazy Days (a children’s non-profit organisation) and at least three more. Hopefully, once the country is in a better condition, we will be doing group walks in at least four towns, once a week, to help grow friendships and lower anxiety levels.
We will never be a massive group but I feel that is our strength, it allows us to connect with members in a way most groups can’t. I also want to help our amazing NHS staff and care home workers, as I feel that once COVID-19 is dealt with, these heroes will need a platform like ours. One thing we know for certain is that poor mental health isn’t going to go away, but if we all pull together, all support each other, all care for one another, we may all pull through one of the most difficult periods in our living history and be stronger for it.
Friends with Anxiety in Hampshire and Surrey is a local group for “people with anxiety feeling alone, looking to make online friendships with people who can relate and understand.” You can request to join the group on Facebook.
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