Mental Health: Peer Support - A Stepping Stone to Mood Disorder Recovery

By Consuelo Solar

For five years Karen Liberman felt that she was losing a battle against madness without telling anyone, because she was ashamed. She considered herself to be worthless, was demoralized, and kept blaming herself for a condition she thought she should be able to control, failing to realize that she was the victim of a disease. “I was suffering and never told a soul, I just put on my makeup, went to work, and struggled through it, trying to figure out how to make it go away myself,” she admits.

When she finally decided to seek help, she was diagnosed with severe clinical depression, beginning a tortuous 15-year recovery journey that took her in and out of psychiatric hospitals. After she got better, she felt the need to help others, and became a volunteer at the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (MDAO), a peer support organization that offers comfort and guidance to people who are struggling with these illnesses, which include several forms of depression and bipolar disorder.

As she describes it, “one volunteer job led to other, ” until she became the Executive Director of the agency, and a well-known presenter on the topic of mood disorders. “If you come to the association, you’ll meet other people who have gone through the same experiences you have, are here to support you in your own journey, and will teach you all the things you need to do to recover, including changes in your exercise and eating habits, and ways of dealing with family and friends. We help people get from ‘I don’t know what’s going on with me’ to ‘I got my life back together’,” Liberman explains.

Trained volunteer facilitators who have been affected by a mood disorder, and are able to relate to group participants on a personal level, deliver MDAO’s programs as a complement to a medical treatment; therefore they do not make recommendations on individual treatment plans. There are currently 18 MDAO support groups in Toronto, and over 40 in communities throughout Ontario, with more than 200 trained volunteers, including people who answer their support line and provide referrals to appropriate mental health and social service agencies, information on how to find a doctor, and friendly support.

Among the most important goals of the agency are generating awareness about the illnesses, particularly in work places and schools, and fighting against misconceptions entrenched in our society; for instance, that people with mood disorders are weak, lazy, or even dangerous. “People think that if you have a mood disorder, you just don’t have a strong enough personality to deal with the stresses of life, and even the person who is suffering from it thinks that they should be able to snap out of it, because it’s not a tumour or a weak heart, but that’s as foolish as saying snap out of diabetes or cancer,” says the director.

According to Liberman, the most stigmatized types of mood disorders are those related to women’s mood and hormonal changes throughout the life cycle, that can cause depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and occur during puberty, pregnancy, post-pregnancy, menopause, and post menopause. “Women who suffer post-partum depression, for example, have to face the general belief that this is supposed to be the happiest moment of your life, and people say you have a beautiful healthy baby, so what’s wrong with you that you are filled with despair, anguish, and anxiety? For this reason, women are very reluctant to share these feelings, and suffer in silence,” observes Liberman.

Tailored to women and girls experiencing these problems associated with hormonal changes throughout the lifespan, Our Sisters’ Place is a concept created by MDAO to provide a community-based support network exclusive for women through peer support groups, public education and information through forums, workshops, conferences and speakers series, and aggressive broad-based public awareness campaigns. The program has the guidance of an advisory panel of experts in the field of women’s health.

Mood disorders result from changes in the brain chemistry and are often genetically-based, and for this reason stress can sometimes trigger or worsen a condition. That is why Liberman advises newcomer women to pay attention to possible signs and seek assistance as soon as possible. “It’s not just that you can’t cope with coming to a new country and everything that it entails. Immigrating is a stressful experience that could trigger a mood disorder in some of us. If you feel like you are struggling to be your usual self, you must talk to somebody you trust who is not judgmental, ideally your family doctor if you have one already”, she advises.

Liberman recommends visiting the site www.checkupfromtheneckup.ca, an online, private, mental health check-up that helps users identify some symptoms of common mood disorders and ways to get help.

“You would know you have this if you are feeling terrible in a way that is different for you and that has lasted more than a couple of weeks; you don’t feel like doing the kind of things you normally like to do; and you notice changes in your appetite, in the way you sleep, or in your level of energy,” she explains, and adds, “These are very treatable conditions so the sooner you catch them the easier it is to treat them”.

Anyone dealing with a mood disorder and seeking support can attend a standard group at MDAO. For more information visit their website at www.mooddisorders.on.ca.

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Consuelo Solar
Consuelo is a journalist, screenwriter and story editor. She has worked as field producer for CNN, and reporter for The Miami Herald and other international media outlets. She currently works as a correspondent for Terra Networks and is involved in independent film projects.