Support groups bring together people facing similar issues, whether that's illness, relationship problems or major life changes. Members of support groups often share experiences and advice. It can be helpful just getting to talk with other people who are in the same boat.
While not everyone wants or needs support beyond that offered by family and friends, you may find it helpful to turn to others outside your immediate circle. A support group can help you cope better and feel less isolated as you make connections with others facing similar challenges. A support group shouldn't replace your standard medical care, but it can be a valuable resource to help you cope.
Understanding support groups
A support group is a gathering of people who share a common health concern or interest. A support group usually focuses on a specific situation or condition, such as breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, addiction or long-term caregiving, for example. Support groups are not the same as group therapy sessions. Group therapy is a formal type of mental health treatment that brings together several people with similar conditions under the guidance of a trained mental health provider.
Support groups may be formed by a lay person with the condition or by someone interested in it, such as a family member. In some cases, support groups may be formed by nonprofit organizations, advocacy organizations, mental health clinics or other organizations.
Support groups also come in a variety of formats, including in person, on the Internet or by telephone. They may be led by professional facilitators — such as a nurse, social worker or psychologist — or by group members. Some groups are educational and structured. For example, the group leader may invite a doctor, psychologist, nurse or social worker to talk about a topic related to the group's needs. Other support groups emphasize emotional support and shared experiences.
Benefits of support groups
Regardless of format, in a support group, you'll find people with problems similar to yours. Members of a support group typically share their personal experiences and offer one another emotional comfort and moral support. They may also offer practical advice and tips to help you cope with your situation.
Benefits of participating in support groups may include:
- Feeling less lonely, isolated or judged
- Gaining a sense of empowerment and control
- Improving your coping skills and sense of adjustment
- Talking openly and honestly about your feelings
- Reducing distress, depression or anxiety
- Developing a clearer understanding of what to expect with your situation
- Getting practical advice or information about treatment options
- Comparing notes about resources, such as doctors and alternative options
How to find a support group
To find a support group:
- Ask your doctor or other health care provider for assistance. Your doctor, nurse, social worker, chaplain or psychologist may be able to recommend a support group for you.
- Look in your local telephone book or check your newspaper for a listing of support resources.
- Contact community centers, libraries, churches, mosques, synagogues or temples in your area.
- Ask others you know with the same illness or life situation for suggestions.
- Contact a state or national organization devoted to your disease, condition or situation.
- Search the Internet. Online support groups are available as email lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, blogs and social networking sites, such as Facebook.
What support group, if any, you ultimately choose may depend largely on what's available in your community, whether you have access to a computer or whether you're able to travel.
Questions to ask before joining a support group
Each type of support group has its own advantages and disadvantages. You may find that you prefer a structured, moderated group. Or you may feel more at ease meeting less formally with a small group of people.
Ask these questions before joining a new support group:
- Is it geared toward a specific condition?
- Is the location convenient for regular attendance?
- What is the meeting schedule?
- Is there a facilitator or moderator?
- Is a mental health expert involved with the group?
- Is it confidential?
- Does it have established ground rules?
- What is a typical meeting like?
- Is it free, and if not what are the fees?
- Does it meet your cultural or ethnic needs?
Plan to attend a few support group meetings to see how you fit in. If the support group makes you uncomfortable or you don't find it useful, try another one. Remember that even a support group you like can change over time as participants come and go. Periodically evaluate the support group to make sure it continues to meet your needs.
Also be aware that you may be at a different stage of coping or acceptance than are others in the support group. Or they may have a different attitude about their situation. While such a mix can provide rich experiences, it may also be unhelpful or even harmful. For instance, some in the group may be pessimistic about their future, while you're looking for hope and optimism. Don't feel obligated to keep attending the group if a conflict or group dynamic is upsetting — find another group or just sit out for a while.
Support group red flags
Not all support groups are a good match for you. Some may be driven by the interests of one or two members. Look for these red flags that may signal a problem with a support group:
- Promises of a sure cure for your disease or condition
- Meetings that are predominantly gripe sessions
- A group leader or member who urges you to stop medical treatment
- High fees to attend the group
- Pressure to purchase products or services
- Disruptive members
- Judgment of your decisions or actions
Be especially careful when you're involved in Internet support groups:
- Keep in mind that online support groups are sometimes used to prey on vulnerable people.
- Be aware of the possibility that people may not be who they say they are, or may be trying to market a product or treatment.
- Be careful about revealing personal information, such as your full name, address or phone number.
- Don't let Internet use lead to isolation from your in-person social network.
Getting the most out of a support group
When you join a new support group, you may be nervous about sharing personal issues with people you don't know. So at first, you may benefit from simply listening. Over time, though, contributing your own ideas and experiences can help you get more out of a support group. But remember that support groups aren't a substitute for regular medical care. Let your doctor know that you're participating in a support group. If a support group isn't your thing but you need help coping with your condition or situation, talk to your doctor about counseling or other types of therapy.