Support Groups: The What, the Why, and the How

Reprinted from PN November 2008

Feeling isolated or depressed? Here's how to develop ties, a sense of community, and opportunities to give to others.

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Also referred to as "mutual-help" or "self-help" groups, support groups come in all shapes and sizes from the four-person get-together with little structure and a wide focus to the 200-plus-person meeting that adheres to a precise format and theme. They may be held in private homes or in public meeting places such as hospitals, schools, or places of worship. They may require steady commitment by members or simply encourage attendance and participation. Some are led by professionals such as doctors, therapists, and social workerswhile many are peer led, either on a rotating basis or by one or two designated individuals.

As different as support groups may be from each other, their overall purposes and benefits are by and large similar. Above all else, they break down isolation. In the support group setting, people discover the commonality of their experiences and feelings and learn from and find hope in each others' struggles and triumphs. Participants often develop ties and a sense of community, especially important in our society where traditional social supports have been eroded. They also find the opportunity to give to others. This can benefit not only the other person but the giver as well.

Not the least advantage of support groups is their practical side: cost. The fees for traditional one-on-one therapy can be steep, and, while support groups led by professionals can also be pricey, many peer-led groups cost either nothing or the price of space rental shared among group members.

Prime Candidates

People with disabilities can be prime candidates for what support groups have to offer. As a minority group, persons with disabilities have often felt deeply isolated, both for practical reasons (some can't hold jobs, participate in many social activities, or otherwise get out and about) and due to the social stigma of being "other." In addition to gaining all the usual benefits of support groups that come from getting to know others who have "been in their shoes" (or in their wheelchairs), they may learn practical coping skills. For instance, members might share notes about the best source for personal care attendants, or the preferred piece of assistive equipment for accomplishing a specific task, or where to go for medical or other help with a particular symptom.

Determining what you want from a support group and checking out resources are the next steps. Find out more in the November PN.


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Support Groups: The What, the Why, and the How


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