We need a sponsorship model for mental health

AA and NA provide effective support for substance abusers. Those with mental illness could benefit from a similar program.

We need a sponsorship model for mental health

AA and NA provide effective support for substance abusers. Those with mental illness could benefit from a similar program.

One of my best friends reached out to me this week with a message I always like to get: “Let’s chat sometime soon.” He immediately followed it with: “I think I wanna quit drinking it sucks.”

We did chat. I asked him how he was feeling, and I asked him if he’d spoken to his therapist about any of it. He told me he didn’t have one, that he doesn’t make doctors’ appointments and puts things off, that he wants to be more present in his own life and get more done.

“I’m just thinking out loud to put it out there I guess,” he said. “Sorry if that was weird.”

The truth is, it wasn’t weird. For the past year, I’ve been very open about my struggles with mental health. In May, during which I’d later realize was hypomanic episode, I got into an argument with a boss and quit my job. Since then, my mood disorder has played out pretty publicly on social media and through my own work. I’m not ashamed of this — in fact, I want to talk about it, because talking about it publicly is what normalizes it, and that can help others.

But I can understand why my friend thought talking about his mental health was weird: Not everyone is so open with their diagnoses, and even fewer are willing to talk about being on medication. We talked about what he was going through, I relayed some of my own experiences going through the same thing, I gave him some tips, and I told him if he needed motivation or someone to talk to, he could reach out to me any time.

After we hung up, I realized there was a word for what I was offering him: sponsorship.

In the realm of substance abuse, sponsorship is a common practice, popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous, which describes itself as “an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem.” The basic definition of a sponsor is someone more experienced — a mentor of sorts — who offers support and help in understanding AA, which today has an estimated two million members.

But while we acknowledge substance abuse is often the result of or can lead to anxiety or mood disorders, there isn’t a similar sponsorship model in the mental-health space, even though one in five adults in the U.S. live with some form of mental illness, and about one in 25 live with a serious mental illness.

For many people, this role can be filled by an intimate partner or friend. But unlike sponsors in substance-abuse programs, such people don’t always share the same life experiences. My wife is caring and empathetic, but she does not have a mood disorder. This becomes frustrating for the both of us: She sometimes struggles to provide the right kind of support, and I often have trouble communicating to her my own problems.

Modeling a sponsor program for mental health, though, would have to be different in some key ways from AA and its sister organization, Narcotics Anonymous. AA and NA are participatory programs, with regular meetings in which one is surrounded by people going through similar issues. Private therapy, on the other hand, is about working with your therapist to gain insight into why you are who you are. Your therapist can’t very well say, “Hey, I’ve got another patient with the same problem. You two should chat!”

There are some groups that can help in this regard. On a national scale, groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness host recovery education courses, as well as courses for family of people with mental health conditions. Groups like the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Texas host regular conferences and seminars. Organizations like these can and should use those networks to reach out to the communities they serve, and link sponsors with those in need. And the courses they provide already offer up a framework for teaching the skills needed to sponsor others.

One way to do this would be through community health events, in which people with varying degrees of mental illness can meet to discuss their own mental health in a safe setting. By meeting others going through similar things, people can learn to become more open with their own illness, while listening to others speak about theirs. Sponsorship could work in a group setting, or spring from those meetings into one-on-one relationships.

There are some conceptual hurdles, however. As a psychiatrist friend was quick to point out, an AA or NA sponsor participates in one or both of those programs to cope with substance abuse and for support in maintaining sobriety. But someone with a mood disorder cannot abstain from having a mood disorder. Similarly, if someone is in need of a mental-health intervention, and their sponsor is also going through a mental-health episode, how can that person be of help?

Though it’s an imperfect comparison, traditional substance-abuse sponsorship programs address a similar issue. Each person’s sponsor is also a recovering substance abuser and has their own sponsor. So in those instances in which a sponsor needs help of their own, they have someone to whom they can reach out. The end result of this model is to create a web of people unafraid of and comfortable with discussing their afflictions, and this is a vital tool in recovery.

Mostly, people with mental illnesses just have to want to do this. On the same day my friend asked for advice, another friend reached out to me. She was supposed to be working on a project, but was in the middle of a depressive episode, and couldn’t find the motivation to get started. So the two of us just sat and talked over Gchat: I asked her what she was working on, and she broke down what she needed to do, step by step. She suddenly had an outline. And it maybe wasn’t everything she needed to get done, but it was something. It was a start.

I felt good doing this. And I realized that I did it because I knew some people had done it for me, and it worked. Because I had experienced what she experienced, I knew how to help her work through it and — more importantly — I wanted to help her. There’s this concept that, before we help others, we must help ourselves. And that’s true. But for those who cope with mental illness in themselves and those close to them, we might just find out that helping others is helping ourselves.

Paul DeBenedetto is a writer and editor in Houston. His DMs are open.