Sunday, October 31, 2010

Peer Support Groups

Adjustment to injury is a long process, especially when coping with a traumatic injury like spinal cord injury (SCI). Adjustment is defined as “adapting to a new condition” and in the case of SCI this means establishing a new sense of self and a new life plan. Everything is different and individuals are experiencing loss in all aspects of their life including mobility, daily activities, work status, relationships, and future plans. At Rancho, I have recently helped to develop a monthly support group to assist individuals in coping with their injury. I thought I’d share a little about it with you.

Our support group invites anyone with an SCI to attend. This includes inpatients at our rehab hospital, outpatients doing outpatient therapy, and community residing individuals who have completed all therapy. The fascinating thing to me about this group is to see the number of individuals who are seeking support who have been injured for many, many years. Last month, we had two gentlemen who had been injured for over 30 years come to the group. I think this clearly demonstrates the challenges of aging with a disability.

At first, I thought that the group would mostly be accessed by individuals who were newly injured. After all, these individuals are dealing with the day-to-day struggles of “Where do I go from here?”—and I assumed the people that would need more help with coping. There are a lot of assumptions about adjustment:

  • People assume that within 1 year a person will be “okay” with their injury. It actually varies greatly between people. Some individuals will never adjust, some will take a few months, some will take 5 years.
  • People assume that everyone is depressed after their injury. In actuality, only 25-30% of individuals with SCI have clinical depression following their injury, but this most occurs within the first year. Likewise, individuals who cannot cope with their injury are most likely to commit suicide within the first five years, and suicide is the most common cause of death 6 months post injury.
  • People assume that individuals with tetraplegia cannot adjust to their injury in the same way that someone with paraplegia can. Again, this is not true. Although individuals with tetraplegia are more likely to be depressed within the first year, they can adjust to injury to the same extent as invidiauls with paraplegia within 5 years.

I learned first-hand through this support group that coping with a disability is really a life-long issue. The support group offers a person a group of peers with a similar condition to relate to, as well as to bounce ideas off of and share methods of coping. Peer support helps an individual realize, “I’m not the only one going through this.” These individuals can provide more information about “real world” experience and knowledge than I, an able-bodied therapist, could ever provide my patients.

In the first few years post injury, the most difficult things to adjust to might be relationships and work-related roles. But later in life, issues surrounding pain or pressure sores might be more relevant. Regardless, individuals post-SCI need support throughout the lifespan, and that it what I hope this group will continue to offer for many years to come.

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