In a support group
, members provide each other with various types of help, usually nonprofessional and nonmaterial, for a particular shared, usually burdensome, characteristic. The help may take the form of providing and evaluating relevant information, relating personal experiences, listening to and accepting others' experiences, providing sympathetic understanding and establishing social networks. A support group may also work to inform the public or engage in advocacy.
Formal support groups may appear to be a modern phenomenon, but they supplement traditional fraternal organizations
such as Freemasonry
in some respects, and may build on certain supportive functions (formerly) carried out in (extended) families
Other types of groups formed to support causes, including causes outside of themselves, are more often called interest groups, advocacy groups, lobby groups, pressure groups or promotional groups. Trade unions and many environmental groups, for example, are interest groups. The term support group in this article refers to peer-to-peer support.
Support groups maintain interpersonal contact among their members in a variety of ways. Traditionally, groups have met in person in sizes that allowed conversational interaction. Support groups also maintain contact through printed newsletters, telephone chains, internet forums, and mailing lists. Some support groups are exclusively online
Membership in some support groups is formally controlled, with admission requirements and membership fees. Other groups are "open" and allow anyone to attend an advertised meeting, for example, or to participate in an online forum.
Management by peers or professionals
A mutual help support group
is fully organized and managed by its members, usually volunteers. Alcoholics Anonymous
and other twelve-step programs
, typically facilitated by members, are one major type of mutual help support group, also referred to as fellowships
, peer support groups
, mutual help groups
, mutual aid self-help groups
or just self-help groups
Professionally operated support groups are facilitated by professionals who do not share the problem of the members, such as social workers, psychologists, or members of the clergy. The facilitator controls discussions and provides other managerial service. Such professionally operated groups are often found in institutional settings, including hospitals, drug-treatment centers and correctional facilities. These types of support group may run for a specified period of time, and an attendance fee is sometimes charged.
Types of support groups
In the case of a disease
, an identity
or a pre-disposition, for example, a support group will provide information, act as a clearing-house for experiences, and may serve as a public relations
voice for sufferers, other members, and their families. Compare Mental Health Stigma
, Mensa International
and gay pride
, for example.
For more temporary conditions, such as bereavement or the problems of ex-cult members, a support group may veer more towards helping those involved to overcome or move "beyond" their condition/experience.
Some supports groups and conditions for which such groups may be formed are:
On-line support groups
Since at least 1982, the Internet
has provided a new and successful venue for support groups. Speaking of on-line self-help support groups as the precursor to e-therapy, Martha Ainsworth notes that "the enduring success of these groups has firmly established the potential of computer-mediated communication to enable discussion of sensitive personal issues.
Support groups have long offered companionship and information for people coping with diseases or disabilities, and on-line situationally oriented groups have expanded to offer support for people facing various life circumstances, especially those involving personal and cultural relationships.
Diverse remote networking formats have allowed the development of both synchronous groups, where individuals can exchange messages in real time, and asynchronous groups, where members who are not necessarily simultaneously connected to a network can read and exchange messages. E-mail, Usenet and Internet bulletin boards have become popular methods of communication for peer-to-peer self-help groups and among facilitated support groups.
Yahoo, Google and ODP
In 2006, Yahoo!
listed more than 30,000 support groups focusing on a wide range of health-related topics within its hosted domains, though research suggests only several thousand of those groups may currently be active. The Internet provides a wide range of benefits to self-help seekers, also through services other than Yahoo! Groups. Many self-help groups can be found on message board
services similar to BBSs
which are not governed by any search engine and so may be harder to find. The message boards may be picked up by the search engines like Google
, Yahoo and Alta Vista
, especially if the board owner submits the board to the search engines. Both Google and Yahoo have directories with lists of support groups for different diseases and conditions. The Open Directory Project
(ODP), also known as Dmoz, has directories with lists of support groups where volunteer editors add groups to the lists even when the forums are not submitted. Google’s directory uses the ODP directory.
Appropriate groups still difficult to find
A researcher from the University College London says the lack of qualitative directories, and the fact that many support groups are not listed by search engines can make finding an appropriate group difficult. Even so, he does say that the medical community needs "to understand the use of personal experiences rather than an evidence-based approach... these groups also impact on how individuals use
information. They can help people learn how to find and use information: for example, users swap Web sites and discuss
It is not difficult to find an online support group, but it is hard to find a good one. In the article What to Look for in Quality Online Support Groups, John M. Grohol gives tips for evaluating online groups and states: "In good online support groups, members stick around long after they've received the support they were seeking. They stay because they want to give others what they themselves found in the group. Psychologists call this high group cohesion, and it is the pinnacle of group achievement.
Benefits and pitfalls
Several studies have shown the importance of the Internet in providing social support, particularly to groups with chronic health problems. Especially in cases of uncommon ailments, a sense of community and understanding in spite of great geographical distances can be important, in addition to sharing of knowledge.
Online support groups, online communities for those affected by a common problem, give mutual support and provide information, two often inseparable features. They are, according to Henry Potts of University College London, "an overlooked resource for patients." Many studies have looked at the content of messages, while what matters is the effect that participation in the group has on the individual. Potts complains that research on these groups has lagged behind, particularly on the groups which are set up by the people with the problems, rather than by researchers and healthcare professionals. User-defined groups can share the sort of practical knowledge that healthcare professionals can overlook, and they also impact on how individuals find, interpret and use information.
Marc D. Feldman of the University of Alabama at Birmingham has warned about sympathy-seekers who invade Internet support groups. He calls it Munchausen by Internet. People can invent or induce fictitious illnesses in themselves or others in an effort to gain sympathy. He alleges that these storytellers can have an enormous impact on online support groups. Among other things, Dr. Feldman says, they can:
- Create a division between those who believe the tale and those who don't,
- Cause some to leave the group,
- Temporarily distract the group from its mission by forcing it to focus on the poser. "Overwhelmingly, these support groups offer a tremendous benefit to people," he says, but "as in other areas of our lives, we have to be informed."
Support groups in popular media
- Fight Club, a novel and a movie, presents a wry analysis of support groups and their function.
- In the Pixar film Finding Nemo, the two main characters encounter three sharks that form a self-help support group to help each other swear off eating fish and change their image.