The subculture I will be observing is a support group for people healing from mental illnesses. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a chapter in Scranton that provides practical resources to individuals dealing with mental illnesses. The group therapy ran by volunteers allows individuals with similar struggles and experiences to come together and start down the road of healing together. I have heard of this organization before doing observations with them, mainly through textbooks and a few research projects, but was unaware they have a local chapter and ran group therapy sessions.
When presented with the project, observing group therapy sessions seemed like a natural choice. I am studying Psychology with the hopes of getting into a clinical counseling graduate program to eventually work as a clinical counselor. I was always interested in the topic of mental health but never thought of counseling as a career choice until I was older. When I was sixteen, a very close friend of mine died from suicide and my life changed radically. After his death, I knew what I wanted to do with my life: help people. Within months of his death, I decided to pursue psychology, so I could work in mental health and suicide counseling. I knew firsthand how mental illness and suicide could change so many people’s lives and if I could even have a small part in helping, it would be worth it. By observing these group therapy sessions, I am presented with valuable observations relating to my field. I can gain knowledge and tips that can only be learned from observing the field.
I have some previous knowledge of mental illnesses and group therapy but in separate areas. I have studied many different psychopathologies during my time at college and have had the opportunity to do a few projects as well. I also work in a group therapy setting, but with teen mothers; in this small group, we focus on decision making and helping the girls finish school. I have yet to experience a setting where I combine knowledge of mental illnesses and my experience with group counseling techniques.
It is my psychology education, however, that can set me up for potential bias. Sometimes with too much education on a topic, it is hard to step back and see it from a personal stance. I have the potential bias to meet these people and see them for textbook cases instead of as individuals. I’ll have to listen to each of their stories and remember that everyone’s journey is different and not identical to the medical journals to really be able to understand the purpose of this support group and to make the most out of my observations.
My initial meeting for observations was in a small wooden building, across the street from the building where the group meetings are held. Downtown Scranton was shutting down due to a heavy snowstorm and the whitish brown slush from the streets had found its way into the small front lobby of the building. There were six plastic chairs, the ones used in elementary school classrooms, lined up against two of the walls. Opposite them was a wall with a small glass window, behind which the receptionist sat. I stopped in for the first time in the morning, and three people sit in the lobby, two chatting away about their new phones, and the other sitting contently, staring at the snow through the window. When I spoke to the receptionist, she informed me that the woman I was supposed to meet with, Marie, got held up in a meeting and could not see me until that afternoon. My second time coming in involved more snow and fewer people. There was a happy, thin old man, pacing around the lobby as I waited to meet Marie, commenting on how beautiful the snow was and how he just wanted to go back home and ride his horses.
MarieSE1 met with me a few minutes later, a tall woman with reddish hair, bundled in a coat and hands full with books. She led me to the back room and as we sat around a large lunch table, she told me all about the program, informing me of the plans for the meeting. The NAMI support group meets on the second and fourth Mondays of the month and the plan is for me to shadow as many as I can. Marie believed I would profit from the continuous observations of the group. She continued to explain how the group works and as our talk went on, I found myself more excited for the observations. She mentioned that during the first group meeting, someone would be coming in and teaching the group some basic yoga exercises. It strikes me odd that this is a part of the group therapy, but I like the idea that this group goes outside the box when it comes to helping people, using physical health to help the mind heal. Marie commented “It’s all a part of our healing. It is all connected.” I think it is an interesting technique and it intrigues me as to what else this therapy will entail.
Marie will most likely continue to be a key informant throughout this process. Along with her, other volunteers that work with the group will also be important to talk to. However, I’d really like to talk to the people receiving the therapy. They have a special bond between themselves and being able to talk to them individually would be good insight into their own personal journeys, along with their journey of healing together.
The people in the group all differ: different ethnicities, backgrounds, jobs, ages, but they all have something in common: they are struggling with some type of mental illness, but are fighting through it and trying to heal. But they are real people with real stories and that is what excites me the most about doing my observation with this subculture. I am passionate about working with people and helping people but also learning from them. I can learn how to best help others, how to best be empathetic to someone else’s pain, and hopefully, take away skills to be an effective counselor one day.