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Help Sheet

Membership of groups

Often in the initial stages of local group formation, issues of membership do not arise. It is simply assumed that people who want to join in do so because it is relevant to their lives and offers them something, and this is sufficient.

As the group gets a bit larger a range of issues can arise. If you do not start to think about these issues within the first six to eight months - ideally, before they actually emerge as an 'issue' for your group - then it is possible that something will crop up that may harm your group or cause distress to current or prospective participants.

There are a number of issues that need to be thought through by the group.

Identifying as a consumer

There can be political undertones that surround the question of 'who is a consumer', and it's wise to at least consider these issues when starting a Consumer Developed Initiative.

Differences may arise from the use in the field of psychiatry of diagnostic categories to group people into; or from the issue of mental health spending, where tensions may arise over the question of who gets the resources and who does not; or from the different ways that people understand and describe their own experience of distress, or their experience of using services.

The important thing for any broad-based group is to think about these issues and enter into discussions recognising that there can be quite profound differences of opinion.

The most usual (and arguably the best) way to organise membership of a Consumer Developed Initiative is to leave it open to all people who identify as a consumer, or a mental health patient, or as someone with a 'mental illness', or a psychiatric disability, (or indeed as a 'psychiatric survivor' or someone who is 'mad', 'batty' or 'crazy' - language that has been reclaimed by consumer activists). It is the process of the identification that is important.

The exception is when people come together around 'illness'-specific categories, where group members may think it is important for all members to be consumers in the strictest sense of the word. Again, though, it is the identification that is important. Nobody needs a medical certificate to join a consumer group - thank goodness.

It is important to keep in mind the purpose of the group when considering issues of membership. For example, for groups that don't want to be active in the mental health field, or that want to position themselves as being open to the general community, issues of identification may be far less significant.

Welcoming new participants

There is still plenty of discrimination out there in the community. For people who have been active in the consumer movement for some time, there might be a degree of immunity to some of this discrimination, so it is important to remember that being involved in a group for the first time can be very scary. It's common for people to be unsure what to expect, to not know if what they have to say will be considered relevant, to not feel very confident.

That's why it is so important to develop some simple statements that encourage people to realise that they are welcome and that they will not be forced to do anything they do not want to do.

Equally, people need to feel that it will be easy for them to pull out of the group if they want, without feeling bad about it.

Open groups / closed groups

'Open groups' are most commonly seen as those groups that any member of the community can belong to. This might be very important if the group has a vision about breaking down prejudice and operates from the principle of not excluding anyone from the benefits of belonging.

The term 'open group' may also be used to describe a group that is not open to the broader community, but instead to anyone who identifies as experiencing 'mental illness'. Such groups can be very attractive to people who have themselves experienced exclusion and do not want to exclude others.

Bear in mind if you're considered setting up an open group that you may experience a particular set of issues. The group may have difficulty defining itself, setting its common purposes, deciding on topics of discussion, and deciding on priorities for group activities, or it may struggle with issues related to constant changes in membership makeup and attendances.

A 'closed group' is one that has restricted attendance or membership. The restrictions may be for some of the following reasons:

Examples of closed groups include:

A closed group might from time to time want to experiment with opening its doors (say, every six months) and become an open group for a particular period of time. This could see the group invite participation from the broader consumer movement, or the entire community.

Becoming an open group from time to time can be a great way to inform the wider community of your group's activities, and also to find out what is currently going on in the broader community.

It also provides a great opportunity for mutual learning exchange between the group and the broader community. Closed groups can still form useful partnerships on specific projects with other groups or organisations.

Some groups may be time-limited closed groups. Examples include specific project groups, where the group is closed for the duration of the project. This ensures continuity of group membership, without the group having to 'start again' every time a new member joins.

Flexibility

Groups need to be flexible to respond to changing membership needs over time.

A group may start off being open, but over time may shift to becoming a closed group.

Or certain activities of a closed group may become even more closed for a certain activity. An example of this would be where there is a closed group 'for renters within a local council area', but some of the activities may be specific to 'women renters in the local council area'. For the duration of the women-specific activities the group is closed to men, but after this it may be opened to 'men and women renters within a local council area' again.

Safety and privacy

You need to be careful about how you handle the private information that you hold about group members, and your own.

If you don't have an organisation or 'parent CDI' to fall back on, you need to think of some ways for people to contact your group without giving out anyone's home address or telephone number.

Some groups give out a mobile phone number but there can be problems with this. Firstly, the financial stress on the person charged with fielding the inquiries can become burdensome, and secondly, there are many people who live with 'mental illness' who don't have a mobile phone.

Email is another option, but it's not advisable to use the email address that has been provided along with your internet account. Instead, use a Gmail, Yahoo! or Hotmail address - they're easy to set up and free so you can have an email account especially for the group.

Remember, though, that you shouldn't rely solely on email because this will exclude many consumers. Not everyone is comfortable with using email.

Each group needs to weigh up the advantages of using a post office box number, mobile phone number or email address as a contact point for the group. It is likely that most new groups will decide on a mix of these, with responsibility spread across as many people as possible.

Face-to-face groups are not for everyone

Not everyone is comfortable being part of or speaking within a face-to-face group.

Face-to-face meetings need not be the only mechanism for participation in a group. In fact the greater the range of ways to participate that a group can provide for members, the greater the potential for participation in the group.

Participation can be via:

Participating in a group using electronic communication

Email lists and contact details need to be treated with the same diligence to privacy and consent as all other contact details and personal information.

Many people find they are excluded from joining debates and discussions and receiving information about group activities due to lack of electronic communication access. This is often a particular problem for older consumers who do not want to use computers or find this form of communication alien and scary. Others may be homeless or moving from host home to host home and unable to access internet. Others find the cost prohibitive.

On the other hand, many people find participation via electronic communication a 'safer' form of participation than face-to-face meetings. For some people with experiences of mental distress even leaving home to get the shopping is a daunting prospect. Many of these people experience community through their computers and without computer-based groups their lives would be very lonely.

Another thing to consider is that young people may be disadvantaged in groups where conventional post is the main, or even only, form of communication. Young people have been brought up in a computer culture. It has been part of their lives since they were very young and they don't 'get' other forms of communication and don't feel comfortable with more conventional methods. Email and texting via a mobile phone are often the only reliable ways to communicate with some young people.

Groups need to be mindful of all these issues when choosing their preferred communication options. The best solution is to provide a range of mechanisms, enabling group members to self-select their preferred method.

e-Groups

Many people with experience of 'mental illness' prefer to form groups through internet interaction. The three main types of internet-based groups are:

  1. Discussion boards (also known as forums and bulletin boards)
  2. Mailing lists
  3. Chat rooms

It is probable that a group will exist that will be relevant to what you want to do and achieve. However, you do need some skills in navigating around the internet to make the most use of what is there.

If you wish to start an e-Group group yourself the easiest option is to use a hosting service with simple to use controls. Most hosting services display ads, but some will let you pay a fee to be free of them.

Check out hosting services such as http://groups.google.com.au or http://au.groups.yahoo.com/ and follow their instructions.

An initiative of Department of Human Services, Developed & Managed by www.ourcommunity.com.au