The Malta Independent 21 May 2019, Tuesday

Empowerment and trust developed through new support group

Giulia Magri Sunday, 17 February 2019, 10:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Recently, as a result of increased social awareness and more people speaking up, discussion on the subject of mental health is being given the importance it truly deserves and there are Mental Health Clinics in Qormi, Paola, Cospicua, Mosta and Mtarfa. The clinic in Qormi has a self-run support group for patients that was set up at the request of the patients themselves. Giulia Magri from The Malta Independent on Sunday was invited by Gertrude Buttigieg from the Office of the Commissioner for Mental Health to come to a meeting of the support group at the Qormi Health Clinic.


"We share the experiences we have faced with each other, which makes us realise that we are not alone," said one member of the group. Although the group is open to both men and women, at the moment only women attend. All of them probably have different stories, and different family backgrounds, but you can see that they have found comfort and support from each other.

The group has been meeting since 2016 and the ages of its members range from 45 to 65. They have grown fond of each other and sufficiently confident to discuss their mental health issues and the problems they may face due to depression or anxiety. The members told me that they sometimes invite guest speakers to talk to them on topics such as money management, the menopause and depression.

There is a sense of mutual understanding in the group and the knowledge that they can be open with each other without fear of being judged, as they discuss - amongst other topics - ageing, bullying, abuse and menopause: issues that all these women have faced or are currently facing. Meeting as a group also brings more awareness about mental health, their symptoms and how to control and understand their emotions.

The nurses, Jane Shillitoe and Josephine Mifsud, help to keep the group going by helping with the logistics and finding speakers, etc. They support the group as a unit but they also know each participant and can provide individual help as the need arises. The group welcomes newcomers and anyone who is interested can call or visit the Clinic.

One member of the group told me what it was like feeling depressed and anxious. "My husband showed me an injury he sustained at work, to which I replied 'yours shows, unlike my wounds.' I frequently feel that no one is aware of my mental wounds apart from the multi-disciplinary team who help with our social and psychological development every step of the way."

Lilian* spoke about her childhood and growing up. "Growing up was difficult. I came from a family where my father was an alcoholic and my mother had all the burdens of a housewife: always cooking, cleaning and become very stressed and nervous." She explained how growing up she saw two sides to her father: one being a charismatic and fatherly figure and the other a drunkard, which had an impact on her.

She described herself as having a curious nature, always asking questions to learn more, but at the time her mother and other relatives labelled her as being nosy and intruding on other people's business. "My mother labelled me as over-confident and always shut me up whenever I tried to speak. This began to affect my confidence and thinking I always wrong."  Lilian explained to us how she felt inferior and how, as she grew up, she have periods of depression, not having any motivation to do any work around the house or to reach out. "I felt that I focused much more on how I might hurt people, rather than how I was hurting myself by not focusing on my self-growth."

Another story was shared by Tania, who had experienced bullying at work and started to believe that she was not capable of holding on to a job, which led to her developing a severe depressive she realised that others had been through the same situation and found support in one another.

"I was shocked at how much damage one person could cause at work". With the support of professionals - including a psychiatrist, a psychologist and mental health nurses - she has now learnt how to watch out for the approaching 'low phase' and, together with the team, adjusts her medication and therapy input so that she keeps herself in a balanced state. Through the group she has discovered that she is not alone and has gained confidence to look for - and find - a new job, where she is currently very happy and feeling fulfilled once again. Actually she had taken that day off to join us on this group session because this once-a-month meeting has become so important in her life.

Gossip and rumours were the straw that broke the camel's back for Susan. She was a happily married mother who also looked after her aging parents when stories and rumours about her caused her to close in on herself, to the extent that she would not even leave the house to go shopping. Her anxiety and fear evolved into depression, where she would do nothing but sleep all day.

Her family, supportive as they were, were also worried and did not know how to help her, until one day her husband gently woke her up and simply said to her: "Shall we do something about this?" Together they sought help and, after years, she is now back to her old self: very happy at home and confident about what she is doing. She spoke of the group as her monthly 'girls' night out' and would not miss it for all the gold in the world!

That is what makes the support group so important: the fact that these women are able to open up about feelings that have been bottled up for many years. In addition, the nurses who help in the group play an important role in the development of these women, and how they can get on with their daily lives. Many of them realise that, with the help of the multi-disciplinary team and the support group, they have gained a sense of empowerment through each other.

Growing more confident - Jane Shillitoe, coordinating nurse

"I have noticed that they have grown more confident through talking about - and sharing - their experiences," said Jane Shillitoe. "Apart from this they also now organise trips out together. It could be something simple, such as meeting for a coffee or going to church together, but this form of socialisation is extremely beneficial for these women, especially as most felt 'isolated' at home with just their families. This gives them time to enjoy and have fun with one another.

"The group also gives the women the opportunity to learn about mental health issues such as depression, paranoia and anxiety and ways of coping with, or overcoming, such issues - and their rights. They take it into their own hands to arrange their outings and the topics that we discuss. They themselves wanted to do this interview to contribute to the #StopStigma Campaign. They know that part of their suffering is due to the stigma associated with mental illness. "Obviously, the focus of the members and the support they get will fluctuate, depending on their state of mind. On the whole, all the members feel they are better supported by coming to the Self Help Support Group sessions regularly and know that they are welcomed by all.

"Some have even said that the group gives them a reason for getting out of bed and motivates them. It gives them the support to remain stable and not relapse, and if they do, they are fully aware that they can receive help from professionals in the mental health team to prevent long-term or recurring illness."

The group is open to people who feel the need for support and have experience of mental illness. The meetings are held at Qormi Health Centre, once a month on a pre-set date. For information, contact the Mental Health Clinic on 2144 1317.

 * While interviews were carried out with the members' consent, the names have been changed to safeguard the person's identity


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