Seeking shared experience, Jacksonville woman starts own support group

Emotional Ally Society offers step toward healing for those with mental illness

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nearly 20% of adults in the U.S. report dealing with some type of mental illness, according to 2017 national statistics.

That means about 46.6 million Americans are suffering from mental illness, the National Institute of Mental Health Information and Resource Center said.

Women (22.3%) were more likely than men (15.1%) to report mental illness, and young adults age 18-25 had the highest prevalence at 25.8%.

Even as national health leaders press for mental health to be seen as equally important with physical health, the stigma and barriers to getting care for mental health issues still exist, said Dr. Catherine Drew with Florida Psychological Associates.

Drew said support organizations can help by tearing down barriers to mental health treatment “by bringing neighbors, friends, and family together to learn and support through shared experiences.”

“It helps to feel supported by a community.  It helps to know you are not alone,” Drew said. “Through this, those in need can be linked to quality mental health services just as we do physical health services.”

One local woman realized the importance of support groups and decided -- when she didn't see one that fit her experiences -- to start her own.

Michelle Balkcom, who has been battling mental health issues for nearly a decade and a half, is turning her pain into purpose.
"I started showing signs of depression around the age of 14. Then I had a few traumatic things happen at the age of 15, one including my brother passing away and a sexual assault, and so I went into this deep depression," Balkcom said.

She said she went to some support groups and it was helpful but something was missing.

“I wasn't directly relating to these people,” Balkcom explained. “Some were older or some were younger. There were people with various mental illnesses, which is great for a mental health support group, but I wanted people -- women -- in my group that we could relate on a certain level, we had things in common and that we could talk about.”

So the Emotional Ally Society was born.

The support group will meet at 3955 Riverside Ave. from 6-8 p.m. on the first and third Monday of every month, starting in September. 

Balkcom's goal is to counter the negative stigma around mental health issues by giving younger women who are around her age a safe space to speak on it and encourage others. 

"Mental illness is real and that it is something that effects so many people. And If we can start taking care of mental illness, that's something that helps build the community from the bottom up,” Balkcom said. “You take care of the real issues, like how people are really feeling, and I think that just helps everyone.”

Balkcom and Drew said support groups are not a replacement for professional therapy but can be a great first step toward getting the help you need.
For more information on this new support group, go to

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