On Monday nights in Albany, a group of people come together to share their stories and experiences and lean on one another for support.

The people are of all ages, a patchwork of backgrounds and life experiences and central Minnesota communities to call home, but bound by a common thread. They are among the tens of millions of Americans living with depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.

The Albany Mental Health Support Group meets every Monday, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., except on holidays, at the CentraCare-Albany Clinic, 30 Railroad Ave. 

Nearly 14 years ago, founder Betty Mrozek set out to help people who, like herself, were struggling. Today, she is one of several trained volunteer co-facilitators who take turns leading the support group.

The inclusive peer support group provides a safe and confidential space for people to share personal experiences and feelings, coping strategies and firsthand information about treatments that can help. No one is required to share, however.

Mrozek, an Albany resident, started the group three years after being diagnosed with major depression and anxiety.

During a long, arduous journey to finding effective treatment, which included numerous medication trials and appointments, Mrozek began attending a mental health support group in St. Cloud.

Comprised of people with shared experiences, the support group became a bridge for Mrozek. It filled the gap between medical treatment and the need for emotional support – support from people who, unlike some friends and family members, understood the impacts of mental illness.

The people beside Mrozek resonated with feeling empty and low, perpetually hopeless, withdrawing socially, having decreased energy, losing interest in activities once enjoyed, living with excessive fear and worry and other debilitating symptoms.

Mrozek wanted to bring those connections to Albany.

“There were people here that also should have close access,” she said.

Mrozek followed her heart and started her own group with help from Catholic Charities’ Hope Community Support Program. She completed training through the Depression-Bipolar Support Alliance in St. Paul and contacted the hospital administrator in Albany about using a space.

The hospital offered a room for meetings, but at first, the room was nearly empty.

“The first year, I sat alone,” Mrozek acknowledged. “I had all this material, and I sat alone every Monday night.”

But Mrozek’s commitment became a testament to the adage, “If you build it, they will come.” The hospital featured the support group in one of its newsletters, and a week later, three people showed up.

“It was amazing,” Mrozek said. “I ran my first group.”

Mrozek’s pain became purpose.

“I remember asking God after I was in treatment and struggling with meds and everything else, ‘Will any good come out of this?’ When I left that group that night, one of the people came up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much. You made a huge difference tonight.’ And I realized then, this is the good that came out of it. … I made a difference in this person’s life.”

After that night, Mrozek rarely sat alone.

Mickey Shay, a classmate of Mrozek, started attending a support group about 12 years ago.

“It helps me, and it helps others. It helps keep you from going down that deep well into severe depression by having that support,” Shay said.

Shay was diagnosed with severe depression and hospitalized in her early 20s and, in recent years, with anxiety. Like Mrozek, she is certain she suffered from mental illness for years before her diagnosis.

Shay is now a fellow co-facilitator. She completed her training at Hope Community Center, and is one of the people who provides respite for Mrozek by taking turns leading the group.

Mrozek likened treatment for mental illness to a three-legged stool.

“There’s the meds and the therapist, and then there’s the support,” she said. “The support comes from family, neighbors, friends and support groups.”

People struggling with mental illness often feel alone, Shay noted.

“It really helps for them to see that they’re not alone. There’s a whole bunch of us out there,” she said.

That bunch of people, Shay and Mrozek said, are from all walks of life, levels of education and socio-economic backgrounds.

Mental illness affects people differently. While some people may experience one episode, it is a lifelong struggle for others. Knowing the latter has motivated Mrozek and Shay to keep the Albany group going.

“Sometimes meds were off, and you’ve got to go through hitting bottom and finding new ones. … It’s constantly something you have to deal with,” Shay said.

People who are feeling well and continue attending the support group can help others by suggesting treatments/life changes that have worked for them.

“It’s a place to go not only when you’re struggling, but it’s important to come when you’re in recovery also, to support other people,” Shay said.

“It also makes those people feel good that they helped,” Mrozek added. 

The one-hour gathering makes all the difference for Shay.

“You feel good after you leave the support group that night. Even if you didn’t help someone, you know, by saying something, just you sitting in that chair is support,” she said.

Sometimes, it is as simple as a nod or smile.

“It doesn’t take much to contribute to somebody’s wellbeing,” Mrozek said.

Up to 12 people have attended at one time. Having a larger group is helpful for new people, as they have more people to listen to, Shay said.

“The first time that people come, they usually don’t want to share. And that’s OK. They don’t ever have to share,” Shay said.

 “And sometimes they feel more comfortable listening to other people share,” Mrozek said.

The hour begins with sharing guidelines. Then, people can introduce themselves and share one good thing that happened the past week if they choose. That good thing can be as simple as seeing the sun shine or not getting sick. After that, it is open to sharing.

Confidentiality is stressed to the max, according to Mrozek.

“What is said there, stays there. It doesn’t leave that room – ever,” she said.

The meeting room at the clinic is situated in an area that supports privacy.

Both Mrozek and Shay talk about their battles with mental illness openly. For the two women sharing their stories is key to shattering a stigma that prevents some people from seeking help.

Shay no longer hides behind her mental illness as she once did when few people talked about it.

“My family knows, my friends know, new people in my life know,” she said. “And because of that, people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, do you still have that group?’”

Mrozek shared her story at a mother-daughter breakfast, and the speaking engagement was the impetus for starting the support group. Hugs from guests telling her about their battle or loved ones’ battles told her how prevalent it is – not just in big cities but here in rural Minnesota.

Minnesota is lacking in mental health services, Shay said. Insufficient funding or difficulty accessing financial support has hindered programs and resources, added Mrozek. Mental health, they stressed, is crucial to a person’s overall wellbeing.

“The most important health in my life is my mental health. If I don’t have my mental health, I have nothing,” Shay said.

Mrozek and Shay dream of a world in which all people recognize mental illness, empathize with those suffering and refrain from judgment.

“I’ve spoken for hope,” Mrozek said. “It needs to be out there.”

Shay stressed that no one should feel shame.

“Some people go for years and years and years suffering. They say, ‘I’ve had depression my whole life but didn’t know where to go or who to talk to about it,” Shay said. “The word they use is ‘embarrassed,’ sadly.”

They continue to be a voice for others through advocacy efforts. By being candid about their journeys, they continue to chip away at the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness, push for more resources in the medical community and remind people they are never alone.

Their group may be small in numbers, but they hope it keeps making a difference.

“Even if it only helps one person, it’s worth it,” Shay said.