Friday, July 12, 2013

A Growing Concern: Peer Support and the GROW Program


These days, self-help groups for mental illness come in a whole range of shapes and sizes – or what the therapists like to call ‘models’.

There are men’s groups, long-term psychotherapy groups, personal development groups run by counsellors, self-help groups for specific problems, short-term courses for disorder management – and then there is GROW.

GROW is a 12-step program with a difference. Instead of being based on a specific addiction, it’s for anyone with a mental illness, recovering from addiction or simply finding life difficult to cope with. 

The aim of GROW is to bring people to a state of greater maturity – in other words to help them grow up. You’re not necessarily cured of life’s travails or the mental illness that plagues you, but not only do you learn how to manage your life better, you get support from others with the same goal.

Meetings are held weekly and include problem solving, study of GROW literature, readings and stories of recovery. Leadership of meetings is rotated among members. Some members are seeing therapists or on medication, while others aren't.

GROW actually began in Australia. It was started in 1957 by a Roman Catholic priest who had a nervous breakdown and discovered there was nothing to support him in his recovery. He started going to Alcoholics Anonymous, where he found other people with mental illness who were there because it was the only thing available. They started meeting weekly to share their recovery, and after the meetings Father Keogh would write up what came out of the group.

The priestly origins of GROW can still be found in some of the literature. Yet GROW is actually more enlightened than other 12-step programs in that it gives people the choice of substituting ‘Truth’ for ‘God’; atheists are welcome.

GROW now has branches in the USA (Illinois, New Jersey and Alaska), New Zealand and Ireland. A similar organisation, Emotions Anonymous, was founded in the USA and has chapters in Australia, the UK, Canada and elsewhere. Another option is Recovery International, on which some of the GROW program is based.

A quirky program that works

While GROW is based on 12-step programs such as AA, it differs from them in significant ways. These differences can be both a strength and a weakness.

Unlike most 12-step programs there’s a free exchange in the meetings themselves, with people offering each other advice and referring to useful bits of the program material. This means it's easier for meetings to get out of control. Some of the people in my group find it hard to stick to the structure and need reining in, and Control Freak here suffers from apoplexy as she bites her lip and refrains from making bitchy comments about the relevance of members' contributions.

Most 12-step meetings are up to one-and-a-half hours long. GROW meetings run for two hours, which is quite a long time, and this may put some people off, at least initially.

The older program material is very dated, and some of it is downright odd, but it's currently being updated. I worry sometimes whether the material is based on the latest evidence base for mental health treatment.

But if you're interested, you have to look beyond these surface elements to what it is about GROW that works - for work it does. A longitudinal study conducted by the School of Psychology at Curtin University found that it improved members' wellbeing, strengthened their identity, and resulted in fewer hospitalisations and a reduction in medication.

Why so successful? One reason is that GROW asks members to attend the same meeting every week. You can’t just float around different meetings, which is possible with conventional 12-step programs. What this does is build strong bonds between people, the ‘peer support’ that is now considered so important to successful management of mental illness.

There is also a huge emphasis on acceptance, non-judgementalism, and, that over-used word 'love'. Every week you say simple things like ‘In GROW we love one another’. These affirming words and the spirit that goes with them are a boost to the fragile self-esteem that mental illness both causes, and is fed by.

Problems are listened to carefully, and the advice of other members is down-to-earth and helpful.

The program literature includes many commonsense sayings and readings. After a while, you learn some of the basic things to read over and think about when the going gets really tough.

If you're having difficulty with a life event or mental illness, or just generally finding life hard going, I heartily recommend giving it a try. If there's no GROW program in your area, other forms of peer support may be available - and when it comes to offering advice and support for mental illness or struggles with life, there's no wiser resource than other sufferers.

Next time: GROW and me

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