The Ministry of Lisa Copen

Lisa Copen, Founder of Rest Ministries which serves the chronically ill, shares about mothering, illness, ministry and more.

ARTICLE: 10 Tips to Having an Illness Support Group that Isn’t Depressing


10 Tips to Having an Illness Support Group that Isn’t Depressing
By Lisa Copen

If you live with chronic pain or an illness, odds are that you have attended a support group at least once since you were diagnosed. Did it feel something like this?

supportgrouphappyDespite feeling exhausted and in pain, you decided you would attend the group anyways. By the time you got there you were running late, couldn’t find the suite number, and finally just parked and hiked to an upstairs room in a dark wing of the hospital. You quietly found a seat, a hard, sticky seat. People smiled at you, but soon they got back to their discussion and it seemed no one was feeling encouraged by it. They argued over the side effects of medicine being worth the benefits, two people tried to convince you to buy a juicer from them, and soon you were ready to run screaming from the room. It’s too depressing!

Aren’t support groups supposed to be a valuable coping tool?

Yes! David Spiegel, MD, has proven in his studies that support groups improve the quality of life for the participants. While recent studies have shown that the patient may not live longer due to the support groups themselves [See the Sept. issue of CANCER, the journal of the American Cancer Society,] there is no denying that having your feelings validated by those who understand will help you sleep better at night. So here are some icebreaker games for small groups to perk up the people!

Whether you are looking for leadership program ideas for your small group, or you’re just thinking about attending one, you may have cause for concern about how fast a group can go from being a friendly, honest place to a time of complaints and even bickering. Would you like some fresh icebreaker games for small groups to perk people up?

Here are 10 tips to help you make your chronic illness support group include some laughter as well as just the discussion of challenges. And these ideas will work for any groups, from a Dementia support groups in Dallas to an Ebsteins Anomaly support group. And these ideas are perfect to have when you are creating a proposal for starting up a support group.

1. Make faces on sticks. It may sound silly, but sometimes getting back to basics works best. Cut out smiley faces and sad faces and glue them on each side of a stick or plastic knife. As people take turns sharing about their week, make sure they can show both sides of the faces. For example, Kim may hold up the sad face while she says “getting ready for surgery and all the therapy afterwards has been stressful.” (Then she can flip the face over to a smiley face) “But I’ve really appreciated how many family members has volunteered to help with childcare.”

2. Rethink your concept of what counts as indoor games for small groups. For example, have everyone bring things for a JOY box and then have everyone choose something to take with them out of it at each meeting. It could be a rubber frog, a favorite poem, a note someone sent, an encouraging book, a silly or sentimental DVD. Have everyone return them by the next meeting to share again.

3. Let your small group write a silly theme as their next icebreaker. If anyone plays the guitar, have them help. You can pick a well known song. Write your own lyrics. Have fun with it and open or close each meeting with it. Comedian Anita Renfroe has a fun parenting song to get you brainstorming.

4. Bring some corny things to use during your meetings. Avoid making anyone feel pressured to use them. (If you force someone to wear a clown nose she may never come back) Have them available, however, and encourage goofiness before getting down to the real reasons you are there. Oriental Trading supply is the source of thousands of funny items guaranteed to spur a giggle.

5. Though it can be a challenge, don’t let your group tune into a platform for any member to talk continuously about his or her disease, the treatments, alternative treatments and even complaints. If someone tends to dominate the conversation, let your group know you are implementing the use of a timer to make sure everyone has equal opportunity to share. Set whatever guidelines you wish, for instance, you could allow people to vent for sixty seconds on any topic. Or they could share about an alternative treatment they’ve found useful, but when the timer rings, time is up!

6. Have everyone bring something to put into a basket of encouragement for someone else. It may be someone who is having surgery from your group or a friend of someone in the group who has just been diagnosed. Brainstorm together about what items people would like, and be sure to remember sometimes the personal notes mean the most. If it’s appropriate consider including family members.

7. Plan a fun evening for the group. If everyone wants a nice sit down restaurant, that’s fine, but you have more fun at your local kid’s pizza playing pinball. It can definitely be a successful icebreaker for small groups. A different environment may encourage some people to be vulnerable who have remained quiet previously.

8. Provide handouts or items that encourage people to thrive with illness. For example, National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week always has fun items like bumper stickers, static clings, stickers, pins, mugs, etc. with the different themes like, “My illness is invisible but my hope shines through!”

9. When you schedule guest speakers, remind them that you want to provide the most positive outlook as possible, while still being practical. Invite them to pass out props, encouraging articles. Listen to your speakers before scheduling them. Some illness speakers are quite depressing.

10. The people in your group are quite amazing and able to make a difference. This is important for them to remember since they often feel so out of control. Your group may not be able to actually walk for charity, but they can likely work at a registration table, pass out bottles of water for a walk/run, or even just hand out presents to kids at the children’s hospital. Teens with chronic illness often get support groups can be great motivators for these kinds of outings. Find a project people are passionate about where they can see they are making a difference in the lives of others.

Support groups can provide some of the most influential relationships that can help one live successfully with chronic illness. The environment of the group, however, can make or break its usefulness. With these few simple tips, your group can be a refuge and a place of true relaxation, creating an special group for people to create friendships that could just last as long as the illness, perhaps indefinitely.

Don’t miss out on the last 22-35 vital steps visit Lisa Copen’s chronic illness and pain support social network for leaders of support groups. Be prepared for the hurdles. Read Lisa’s book, ‘So You Want to Start a Chronic Illness Pain Ministry: 10 Essentials to Make it Work” at The Comfort Zone Bookstore or

Get a free download of 200 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend from “Beyond Casseroles” by Lisa Copen when you subscribe to HopeNotes ezine at Rest Ministries. Lisa is the coordinator of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week and host of Hope Endures Radio Podcast.

1 Comment»

  Connie wrote @

What encouraging suggestions! I help run a small support group for people with chronic illnesses sponsored by my church. I still struggle with the issues I deal with concerning my own health, as it is ever changing. I have a Pastor that is extremely helpful in leading this group with me because of this.
I am going to bring a copy of your ideas to him so we can brainstorm some “new life” into our group. God bless you for all you do to help those of us with chronic illnesses!

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