Amy Scholten, MPH
Whether you are dealing with a chronic illness, emotional problem, life transition, or want to enhance your health and well-being, your community may have a group where you can come together with people in the same situation. But maybe you are feeling a little unsure or skeptical about participating in a support group. What can you expect? How can a support group help you?
In earlier times, barn raisings, square dances, quilting bees, and other community gatherings were places where people came together to celebrate, nurture, encourage, and console one another. Today, most of us need that same nurturing, encouragement, intimacy and consolation, particularly during difficult times. But face-to-face interactions within the community are becoming more and more scarce. If we are lucky, we get support from family and friends, but sometimes they cannot quite understand what it is like to be in our situation. A support or self-help group comprising people in the same situation may help fill the void.
Support and self-help groups involve regular meetings where people experiencing similar problems or life transitions come together to offer each other support and encouragement. In the last 25 years, there has been an increase in the number of support and self-help groups.
Support and self-help groups address many issues. Common ones include:
Although support and self-help groups can vary greatly, all groups share one thing in common—they are places where people can share personal stories, express emotions, and be heard in an atmosphere of acceptance, understanding, and encouragement. Participants share information and resources. By helping others, people in a support group strengthen and empower themselves. In addition to providing support, some groups may also focus on community education or advocacy.
The emotional support derived from support group participation can help reduce stress, which can have a positive impact on health. Further, people may greatly benefit from the information sharing that takes place in a support group. They may learn how to manage symptoms, develop better coping skills, and communicate more effectively with their doctors. By attending support groups, partners, friends, and family members may also learn how to be more understanding and supportive of their chronically ill loved ones. In time, all these benefits may help reduce stress and enhance recovery.
“Support groups vary enormously,” says Julia Rowland, PhD, director of the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Survivorship. “They can be helpful for people who feel comfortable in a group, but they aren’t the answer for everybody.”
Most communities, large and small, have support and self-help groups of various kinds. You can often find out about groups in the community pages of your phone book, local newspapers, or online. National self-help organizations such as Alcoholic’s Anonymous typically have local chapters and are listed in the phone book and on the internet. You can also ask your doctor or therapist for information about support groups. The National Library of Medicine has an index called
that can be useful.
Perhaps you have an issue for which no relevant group exists in your community. In that case, you may want to consider starting a support group. Let your doctor know that you plan on starting a support group and leave your phone number for others to call. Find a comfortable and accessible place and a convenient time to meet. Get the word out by using the community pages of your newspaper and posting and distributing flyers to area doctors, hospitals, and libraries.
Hearts and Minds
National Mental Health Consumers' Self-help Clearinghouse
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Cancer support groups: questions and answers.
National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
http://www.cancer.gov/. Updated February 2002. Accessed August 13, 2008.
Harvard Health Letter website. Available at:
University of Wisconsin, Health and Human Issues Department website. Available at:
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