Aware in Care: Real Stories
Marty's Story: Leading a Depression Support Group
Marty Heller, 66, lives less than 30 miles from the depression support group meetings he runs for NorthShore Health System in Chicago. Yet he leaves his home in the city about two hours before they’re scheduled to start.
“Where I live, in rush hour, it’s not easy for me to get there,” Heller says. He doesn’t mind, though. “If I had to drive 100 miles through traffic to get there, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash.”
Being active in a support group helped Heller so much that he strives to give back and help others with depression. “I’ve found my calling in life — facilitating these groups,” he says.
Heller has lived with depression from a young age — around 7 or 8 years old — but he wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his twenties. As a child, he coped the best he could. “I functioned to some degree underneath it,” he says.
Getting Help for Depression
Once diagnosed, Heller started taking an antidepressant medication, but that didn't help. He still had little energy and no interest in participating in family or other activities. “I was listless, tired, sleeping a lot, and crabby,” he says.
Finally, when Heller was in his forties, married with children, and still depressed at times, his wife insisted he seek professional help. The doctor suggested a different medication, and this time Heller saw an immediate difference. “It was almost like taking an aspirin for a headache,” he says. “I’ve been taking antidepressant medication and have continued to see a doctor for medical checks ever since.”
The doctor also suggested that Heller enroll in an outpatient program that was part of the NorthShore Health System. “You go in the morning and leave in the afternoon for five weeks,” he says. Although at the start he went just to placate his wife and daughter, Heller says the program turned out to be a tremendous help.
While there, he learned the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). CBT helps people learn how to use their thoughts to control their emotions and behavior. DBT emphasizes mindfulness and skills for tolerating stress and regulating one’s emotions.
A Multifaceted Approach to Managing Depression
While in the program, Heller also learned about the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). “I went to a DBSA support group meeting and liked it very much,” he says, adding that talking about depression with others who are also going through it was tremendously helpful. “I had concerns that I could slip back into depression, and the support group helped remind me I could be in recovery even if I’m not cured."
In early 2012, the president of the DBSA Greater Chicago Chapter asked Heller if he would lead a support group at Northwestern Memorial Hospital twice a month. He says he was happy to have the opportunity to give back and talk about how support groups helped him manage his depression.
The group Heller leads today is made up mostly of adults and has 18 to 26 participants. Each meeting lasts about 90 minutes. “Ours is bigger than the other groups I’m familiar with in the Chicago area,” he says. Some people come regularly, but there are new faces each time.
Heller also fills in as a support group leader when another leader can’t make it. “I like to think I’m good at it,” he says. “I get a lot of positive validation and feedback from the group members.” That positive feedback helps him keep going.
Depression Support Group Goals
Heller tries to make everyone in the group feel “warm and welcome,” as he puts it. Most new people look around with anxiety and apprehension and aren’t sure what to expect, he says, "but five minutes later, they’re telling their story when they realize they’re in a safe place where they can talk openly with people who really understand.”
Most people leave the meetings happier than when they walked in, Heller says. “[At first] you can read on their faces that they’re very depressed," he says. "By the end of the meeting, they’re smiling and laughing. That’s a big deal." Heller says he likes to tell jokes to keep it light, but sometimes things get a little heavy and everyone grabs a tissue.
Heller believes that leading a depression support group is essential to his staying in recovery. “I’ve learned that I have more to offer than I ever thought I did, that I’m more comfortable in my own skin knowing how much I’m helping others, and that I’m doing something that’s beneficial to this planet,” says Heller.
How Support Helps in Managing Depression
Bernard Guerney, PhD, a retired marital and family therapist and founder of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement in Bethesda, Md., says this about the benefits that Heller is experiencing: “Being a leader and succeeding boosts your self-image, which is very important, especially when you suffer from depression."
Of course, members of depression support groups also benefit, too, because realizing that you’re not alone “is very soothing and makes you more optimistic," Dr. Guerney says. "You feel less depressed just by that."
Hearing others talk about how they deal with their depression is often extremely helpful as well. “You can learn from other people who are in the same situation,” he says.
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