Self-help groups are comprised of people with a common goal, usually involving the treatment of a mental health, emotional, physical, or behavioral issue. These groups work on the principle of mutual support. Members share a disability or problem, and meetings revolve around discussion and shared problem solving.
There are self-help groups of countless types. Groups exist for alcohol addiction, cancer, and schizophrenia, among many others. Some groups are for those who share a common interest, such as new parents. There are also groups for families of people afflicted with an illness or disability.
These groups may be led by peers or by a professional. Attendance is voluntary in most cases. Meetings are scheduled by participants and there are usually no formal dues, although there may be some fees associated with snacks or rooms for holding the meetings.
Some groups allow members to remain anonymous, using only first names. In online communities, members choose user names to preserve privacy. This anonymity allows people to feel more comfortable when sharing personal experiences, while still sharing common situations and feelings.
Self-help groups can be effective in a number of ways. Members often benefit from the support and advice of their peers. Another advantage can be improved self-esteem related to being able to help others. A common feeling of belonging and the ability to talk with others who can understand and relate to similar feelings can also be a valuable benefit of group meetings.
Most groups will have a leader, either the person who started the group, someone chosen by the group, or a professional. The leader will organize the meeting schedule and facilitate discussions. A leader must be able to ensure that the group stays on track and that no one member monopolizes the dialogue. Leaders may choose to find speakers or materials related to the group’s purpose. Some groups choose co-leaders to handle the responsibilities.
A relatively new innovation in self-help groups is the online group. The Internet is full of web-based groups that utilize forums, chat rooms, and emails. Online groups have the added benefit of worldwide access and 24 hour accessibility. Also available on the Internet are resources for finding both physical and online groups and guides for starting a group.
Studies have shown that peer-led self-help groups can be as effective as professionally led groups. For example, two studies of professional versus self-help weight loss groups showed that both groups lost equal amounts of weight and retained the losses over the course of the next year. In other studies, researchers found that people with serious mental illnesses benefited significantly from group meetings. In general, individuals who belonged to these types of support groups expressed positive feelings about the group and felt that it was beneficial to them.