Self-help groups or support groups are groups of people who can provide mutual support for each other. In each group the members spare a common condition, disease or addiction. To learn that you are not alone, that you are not the only one facing the problem, can be an enormous relief. For those who might be lacking support and empathy from friends and family, the environment of a self-help group who has members with similar experience can be a critical part of recovery.
While every group is different the self-help experience in these groups reduces stress and isolation through shared experience, understanding support and information sharing. The model of self-help is empowering as the participants are dependent on themselves, on each other and the group. Through self-disclosure, members share their stories, stresses, feelings and recoveries. Together they learn to understand and control the issue in their lives, by giving emotional , social and practical support to each other.
- What is a self help group?
Self-help and support groups:
- Self-help groups are run by members of the group and group members help each other solve problems
- Self-help groups meet regularly or as needed
- Self-help groups can be attended by the person with the condition and their family and friends
- Self-help groups work well when all members participate
Finding Strength and Empowerment:
- Self-help groups embrace the specific needs of the each individual through the common experience of others who face similar struggles
- Self-help embraces simple, workable and relevant concepts that have a profound impact on problems
- Self help solutions strengthen the individual to take ownership of the issues through action and not reaction
Benefits of Self-help Groups:
- Community Involvement – dealing with a condition, addiction or mental health can be isolating and may stifle relationships and destroy the sense of belonging to a community. Self-help fosters an atmosphere of sharing and growth and can create a community atmosphere among people who share many of the same experiences.
- Mutual Support – each group encourages support and understanding through lived experience and shared values. The new member might be supported and mentored by an older member, people will gravitate to members who have gone through similar experiences.
- Personal Growth – the potential for personal growth is large – talking about your condition, where in the past it may have been hidden, asking for advice and support and assisting others with experiences on your journey assists others and develops skills and abilities.
- Information and Education – many support groups have access to libraries, brochures, contacts, on line platforms and websites to inform and educate. Through another members experience and journey, others can gain the best information by avoiding those that led others nowhere. By gaining knowledge and coping skills people are able to choose the tools and strategies that work best for them. This adds to the sense of self direction.
- Networking – the ability to network and form alliances with other groups and individuals through self-help groups can be very beneficial.
- Self Advocacy – Groups which foster members ability to rediscover new roles and responsibilities support members to gain back control of their lives. In addition the encouragement of self-advocacy and group-advocacy, members learn to take an active rather than a passive role in their recovery and wellness. Members learn to problem solve and make decisions for themselves with the guidance of other group members. They learn about other treatments available to them and become their own advocate for their own wellness.
Finding a Self-help Group
For all physical conditions, mental health and addictions there are self-help groups of like-minded people who share similar experiences.
Meetings are usually held centrally in community centres, homes or church halls and may operate informally or according to a format or program. Many self-help organisations have groups for carers and families as they often feel isolated and stressed helping their families cope with the issues around the condition or changes.
Not only do self-help groups offer strength in numbers , but increasingly they have come to offer more convenience than previously. Groups may hold face to face meetings, social media forums and groups, support meetings or line or over the phone. This allows access to people who may otherwise miss out, people with busy schedules, or who live interstate or those without the means or mobility to get to meetings.
Most self-help groups are free or affordable, with a yearly membership fee.
Common Concerns for the first meeting
Any person attending a self-help group for the first time has initial worries and fears. Usually people are most concerned about relating to strangers, embarrassment about speaking in a group, fears about revealing too much about themselves, issues with acceptance and how others in the group might view them and concerns about acceptance.
Every one’s experience is unique, but most concerns and fears diminish once you are welcomed as part of the group. The hardest and most courageous step is to walk through the door the first time.
Strategies for Wellness
Many people find that self-help groups offer unique and creative strategies to obtain a fresh perspective on old issues through brainstorming and involvement of others who have walked a similar journey. It is comforting to know that others care and are there if or when you may fall. Also, self-help groups have grown beyond the health conditions and often address common concerns or circumstances, by providing support and information outside of the particular condition. Self-help groups are different from counselling sessions, although counselling may be suggested when it could be helpful.
Self-help groups, by their very makeup, promote wellness and recovery in people experiencing mental illness, physical conditions or other life altering events. Many of the benefits of self-help groups come in the form of hope, support, education and taking personal responsibility for recovery.
Are self-help groups effective?
Self-help groups are comprised of people who share the same problem, life situation or crisis. Members provide emotional support to one another, learn new ways to cope, discover strategies for improving their condition and help others while helping. Self-help groups are increasingly being recognised as viable, efficient methods of supplementing and extending present health and mental health resources to be characterised as an ‘emerging social movement’ (Borkman 1990; Katz 1981).
In addition numerous research studies have concluded that self-help groups are effective in helping group members, both short and long term. Self-help groups have been shown to improve health conditions and prevent problems associated with chronic illness.
In the safety of a self-help group, members are offered space and time, which can provide the assistance for needed changes to occur. Each member of the group can learn from both observation and both direct and indirect participation. You may hear something from others that you can relate too or find useful. Other members also serve as sources of feedback, as models, guides and encouragers. You receive help yourself, and in turn you can extend help to others and feedback. Seeing others reveal information in a safe environment help others to do the same, it ultimately assists others in the group with the same struggles.
Self-help groups and mental health
Self-help groups are extremely helpful for those with mental health conditions because the can provide a sense of community and belonging. In addition they offer a confidential and non-judgemental environment, with others who have experienced similar concerns and this allows members to freely share without fear of judgement and recrimination.
Attending self-help meetings has been shown to promote increased self-esteem as members begin to feel better about themselves after having meaningful interactions with peers and receiving positive feedback from other group members.
Self-help groups have been found to have significant benefits for people dealing with substance use issues, bereavement and chronic mental health issues specifically. However they are not typically considered a form of therapy and it is often advised that individuals experiencing mental health issues attend self-help groups as a supplement to therapy or other treatment, rather than as a primary intervention.