“Fear, shame, even guilt keep many people suffering in silence,” says SADAG’s Cassey Chambers. “Sufferers and loved ones keep things bottled up and don’t always ask for or get support. This can make mental illness, especially a condition like Bipolar, so much worse because there is no one to help you cope with what the diagnosis entails.”

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) knows how many people suffer in isolation from the hundreds of calls its helpline receives every day. For callers whose families are not supportive, there is an alternative - Support Groups.

This week, countrywide talks in Johannesburg, Benoni, Sandton, Soweto, Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Vanderbijlpark, Bloemfontein, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Cape Town, Mitchell's Plain, Stellenbosch and Observatory will be held to encourage people to attend Support Groups and learn more about their illness. Through a talk by a specialist they will be able to ask questions about their treatment, medication and family support. To find the venues and dates of these talks, visit www.sadag.org or call 0800 70 80 90.

“A diagnosis is hard at the best of times and a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder is not easy. Trying to do it alone makes it so much more difficult to deal with,” says Jay, a long-term Support Group facilitator in the Cape. “Belonging to a group helps the patient release some emotional pressure and focus on getting well. Being diagnosed with an illness like Bipolar is scary and lonely,” he says. “One of the most frightening and isolating aspects is that you fear no one will understand.”

Support Groups take away that fear – everyone in the group has been there, they know what you are going through. “Support Groups empower you and help you tap into the knowledge, experience and wisdom of others. Family support is important, but outsiders can offer a different perspective because they’re less emotionally involved. They can be more objective and don’t get personally involved or wound up in the chaos that a diagnosis of a mental illness can bring,” says Sally, a Johannesburg-based facilitator.

Support Groups aren’t just for patients either. They provide support and care for loved ones who are dealing with their own fears, insecurities and anxieties. Bipolar Disorder not only affects the life of the person diagnosed with the illness, but also the lives of those who care for and love them. Family members, partners and friends are often a primary source of support for a person with Bipolar Disorder, and often burn out in the process.

“People living with a mental illness like Bipolar differ in what help they need and want from their loved ones,” says Sandton psychiatrist, Dr Frans Korb. Support Groups help people deal with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder in a well-adjusted way and this is a first step to meeting similar people. “Participating in a Support Group often means reduced hospitalisation, improved coping skills, improved compliance of treatment and improved daily functioning,” says Dr Korb.