A University of Houston-Victoria grad is starting a peer support group for people recovering from mental illness.
The group, part of a nationwide network of peer support groups, will meet for the first time Thursday.
Kayla Gutierrez, 25, spent almost a decade suffering from depression and anxiety before she sought treatment and began the recovery process, she said.
Gutierrez is starting the group after learning from her own struggles with mental illness. Gutierrez said she first began talking openly about her struggle with mental illness during a class at UHV, where she graduated last year.
“I realized I wasn’t alone,” Gutierrez said. “I always wanted to help other people but I realized I needed to help myself first.”
She said hearing other students talk about their experiences helped her be more open and honest with herself.
Peer support groups have increasingly become a valuable tool for Americans suffering or recovering from mental illness. The general concept, which has existed for centuries and is well-known as the foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous, relies on the principal that someone who has been through a similar, difficult experience can provide a unique form of support to those who need it.
Gutierrez is now a community health worker with Be Well Victoria, a coalition that’s working to address the root causes that affect Victoria residents’ mental health and overall well-being. With Be Well, Gutierrez is working on big-picture changes that could improve health for Victoria residents. But she said she decided to start a separate support group on her own after a community meeting earlier this year. Gutierrez said a woman approached the Be Well team after a community meeting looking for help and support, and asked about Victoria’s National Alliance on Mental Illness affiliate, which folded in 2013.
Gutierrez decided to take a training with NAMI’s Corpus Christi affiliate to create a new support group. The group, which will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Pine Street Community Center, will follow NAMI’s structure for its Connection Recovery Support Group program. The meetings are open to any adults who consider themselves in recovery from a mental illness. Participants will split their time equally talking about any challenges they might currently be facing when it comes to their mental health, Gutierrez said.
During a meeting, participants might talk about how they’re faring with their recovery, how or why they might be struggling, and tools that they use to help themselves feel better. For example, Gutierrez said she’s learned that reading and meditation are useful ways to help her take care of herself.
Gutierrez, who previously worked as a police dispatcher in El Campo, said she learned how to cope with stressful and emotionally taxing work days there by taking time for herself after work.
Numerous mental health groups throughout the U.S. have peer support groups like NAMI, including the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.
Kevin Einbinder, the alliance’s vice president for communications and programs, said peer support groups were at the heart of his organization.
“Being able to talk with other individuals who can relate to your experience similar goes a very, very long way because they can share what works for them,” Einbinder said.
He added that relationships that form in support groups can lead to concrete steps that help participants, like allowing people to develop a safety plan with someone they might meet through the group if they feel suicidal.
For Victoria, the peer support group will provide a free resource for residents who might be unwilling or unable to meet regularly with a professional counselor, or additional support for those who are in regular counseling but are looking for a network. Peer groups also offer help in communities where access to mental health care might be hard to come by or too expensive to afford. The nonprofit Mental Health America ranked Texas last in the country when it came to access to care.
Jenna Weaver contributed to this report.