Support groups: the best mental health care money can't buy (they're free).(MANCHAN/GETTY)Research scientists rarely agree on the best treatment for depression, bipolar disorder, and other conditions. But there is one area where something like consensus is emerging: the benefits of support groups for people suffering from mental disorders, either as an adjunct to therapy or alone.

Results of studies of such programs consistently show: reduced symptoms and substance abuse, reduction in hospitalizations, improved social skills, and increased self-esteem and healthy behavior in people who participate.

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Online support groups are also valuable, and are the preferred choice for many sufferers. In one study, 47% of chronically depressed, socially isolated people who participated regularly in online groups reported a reduction in symptoms. Notably, nearly 40% of the participants said they preferred the online support groups to face-to-face counseling.

Online groups can ease isolation
Kathleen Brannon, 48, isn't surprised by these findings. "I'm socially phobic, and have a terrible fear of talking to people," says the stay-at-home mom from Herndon, Virginia, who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. "So being able to get help on the Internet was helpful."

For Joseph, who has suffered from depression for nearly 30 years, meeting in person far surpasses online support groups for depression. "I see [the other participants'] faces—panic, sadness, hope—and their body language. It was invaluable, and I can't imagine doing it on a computer," he says.

A friend of Joseph's pulled together a small group of men and women who meet to talk at his apartment. "We don't get into therapy with each other—it's mostly hand-holding. I find out to my relief that I'm not the worst-off person in the group," he says.

Other groups are more formal, and some are modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, with strict codes of confidentiality and no fees. Your therapist or primary care physician can refer you to a peer support group, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (1-800-950-NAMI) can direct you to an online or in-person meeting in your area.

Eventually Brannon got off line and graduated to such a group through NAMI. "I'd never been anyplace where everyone in the room was mentally ill, and we hadn't been forced to be there," she says. The experience of sharing stories, relating to people with similar characteristics, and swapping coping tips allowed her to see own diagnosis more objectively. It also distigmatized her diagnosis. "There were all these great, smart, kind people there. I didn't have as much trouble identifying as a person with mental illness after that."