Support groups are playing a key role in empowering individuals and helping causes

For every one who calls Mumbai a callous, uncaring city, there will probably be ten others speaking up for the support they have generously received, invariably from others like themselves. Empathy is a powerful binder, a game-changer. It naturally plays a key role in the eponymous support group for women set up by theatre veteran Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal. Shedding more light on its raison d’etre, the director best known for her long-running play ‘The Vagina Monologues’, shares, “I want women to not be ashamed to share their stories. Each one has a story to tell, that needs to be told and heard, with respect, dignity and empathy. Many come out of the cocoon they have built around themselves, unknowingly. They need to blossom and revel in their own identity, their own sexuality. They need to be confident and productive members of society.” Not surprisingly, the impetus for Empathy, which sees women from various professions and monetary stations meeting regularly, came from Mody Kotwal’s own personal experience. “The reason I started this group is because I myself have received so much love, support and affection in my life, sometimes from total strangers, that I thought it was time for me to give back to society.”

This desire to give back finds an echo in Madhav Kolhatkar. A recovering addict who has been sober since the past 12 years, he credits his turnaround to the Muktangan Rehabilitation Centre, Pune, where he now also works as a counsellor. “Addiction is a lifelong disease which requires support and understanding,” he informs, sharing that the support group is not restricted to only addicts or their family members and care givers but also to those who have no history of addiction. “The understanding and sharing in the groups is useful for general public and for preventive measures,” he points out, adding, “The personal sharing of life changing experiences is most valuable.”

Support groups play a crucial role in our modern world. Dr Kersi Chavda, practising psychiatrist and consultant at Hinduja National Hospital Groups, explains, “We have so many stresses and very often we don’t want to talk to friends or family because we might not necessarily want them to react. But if you are speaking to somebody who is in a similar situation, or has similar problems and has dealt with it in a different fashion, just getting inputs on that makes a lot of difference whether in terms of reinforcing what you are doing or giving you ideas about what you could do. It makes you feel less alone.”

With isolation a crippling reality for those battling personal problems, practising psychiatrist Dr Chinmay Kulkarni believes that support groups give people a vital sense of belongingness. “People may face problems which are uncommon. So they might start feeling that no one understands their situation, their feelings. Psychologically they might catastrophise these problems. When they attend support groups, they meet people who are going through similar situations. Sharing one's experiences is an integral part of support groups. People who are facing similar problems or had faced similar problems in the past can empathise easily. They can also help a person with their experiences, their coping strategies, their ways to handle the stress etc.” Additionally, as the groups meet regularly, the group members also start developing a group identity. Psychologically, this helps them in working towards the goal, for example after identifying themselves with Alcoholics Anonymous, people also start identifying with being sober.

From Facebook groups for the disabled, to discussion forums for schizophrenics, to even real time support groups for care-givers, the gamut of help available is wide. Shares Bhavana Issar, Founder & CEO, Caregiver Saathi, “We create safe spaces for caregivers to understand their challenges, be able to share and support each other and learn from each other in these support groups.” Issar explains that with the rising incidence of terminal illness or chronic conditions like cancer, neurological conditions, mental health conditions, genetic conditions that lead to special needs, an ageing population and due to nuclear families, the care-giving responsibility squarely rests on one person in the family who is the primary caregiver. “The caregiver goes through trauma of their own kind as they care for the family member, their loved one. Our healthcare system provides for primarily the patient and for acute illness. However, the healing and quality of life of the patient is dependent on the well-being of the caregiver. Caregivers experience trauma, guilt, anger, frustration, compassion fatigue, anticipatory grief and ambiguous loss. In a society where care-giving is predominantly a gendered role (60-80% of the time the caregivers are women), there is a lot of pressure on caregivers.”

While Caregiver Saathi is an endeavour to acknowledge and support caregivers, empowering them, and enabling their well-being, it is heartening to see increasing numbers of concerned individuals coming together to work towards the well-being of another entity under pressure—the environment. The committed core members of the Jay Foundation are joined by an enthusiastic band of volunteers who are at the forefront of keeping Dadar beach clean over 119 weeks of beach cleaning sessions. Having purged the beach of over 1500 tonnes of plastic and other waste, Sakshi Priyanka, Project Manager, smiles, “Interpersonal bonding apart, we surely know that the participants are bonding with the environment!”At the end of the day, as Mahabanoo avers, no one should feel alone, lonely or helpless. “There are many good people around who are willing to give you a helping hand and listen to your problems without judging you.” It’s time to reach out and accept that supportive shoulder.

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