Support groups bring together people who are going through or have gone through similar experiences. For example, this common ground might be cancer, chronic medical conditions, addiction, bereavement or caregiving.
A support group provides an opportunity for people to share personal experiences and feelings, coping strategies, or firsthand information about diseases or treatments.
For many people, a health-related support group may fill a gap between medical treatment and the need for emotional support. A person's relationship with a doctor or other medical personnel may not provide adequate emotional support, and a person's family and friends may not understand the impact of a disease or treatment. A support group among people with shared experiences may function as a bridge between medical and emotional needs.
Structure of support groups
Support groups may be offered by a nonprofit advocacy organization, clinic, hospital or community organization. They also may be independent of any organization and run entirely by group members.
Formats of support groups vary, including face-to-face meetings, teleconferences or online communities. A lay person — someone who shares or has shared the group's common experience — often leads a support group, but a group also may be led by a professional facilitator, such as a nurse, social worker or psychologist.
Some support groups may offer educational opportunities, such as a guest doctor, psychologist, nurse or social worker to talk about a topic related to the group's needs.
Support groups are not the same as group therapy sessions. Group therapy is a specific type of mental health treatment that brings together several people with similar conditions under the guidance of a licensed mental health care provider.
Benefits of support groups
The common experience among members of a support group often means they have similar feelings, worries, everyday problems, treatment decisions or treatment side effects. Participating in a group provides you with an opportunity to be with people who are likely to have a common purpose and likely to understand one another.
Benefits of participating in a support group may include:
- Feeling less lonely, isolated or judged
- Reducing distress, depression, anxiety or fatigue
- Talking openly and honestly about your feelings
- Improving skills to cope with challenges
- Staying motivated to manage chronic conditions or stick to treatment plans
- Gaining a sense of empowerment, control or hope
- Improving understanding of a disease and your own experience with it
- Getting practical feedback about treatment options
- Learning about health, economic or social resources
Support groups may have drawbacks, and effective groups generally depend on the facilitator to help steer away from these problems. These problems may include:
- Disruptive group members
- Conversation dominated by griping
- Lack of confidentiality
- Emotional entanglement, group tension or interpersonal conflicts
- Inappropriate or unsound medical advice
- Competitive comparisons of whose condition or experience is worse
Pros and cons of online support groups
Online support groups offer benefits and risks that are particular to that format. It's important to consider these factors before joining an online group.
Benefits of online groups include:
- More frequent or flexible participation
- Opportunities for people who may not have local face-to-face support groups
- A degree of privacy or anonymity
Risks of online support groups include the following:
- Communication only by written text can lead to misunderstanding or confusion among group members.
- Anonymity may lead to inappropriate or disrespectful comments or behaviors.
- Participation online may result in isolation from other friends or family.
- Online communities may be particularly susceptible to misinformation or information overload.
- People may use the online environment to prey on people, promote a product or commit fraud.
How to find a support group
Information about support groups may be available from the following:
- Your doctor, clinic or hospital
- Nonprofit organizations that advocate for particular medical conditions or life changes
- National Institutes of Health websites for specific diseases and conditions
Questions to ask before joining a support group
Support groups vary in how they are organized and led. Before joining a support group, ask the following questions:
- Is the group designed for people with a specific medical condition or certain stage of a disease?
- Does the group meet for a set period of time or does it continue indefinitely?
- Where does the group meet?
- At what times and how often does the group meet?
- Is there a facilitator or moderator?
- Has the facilitator undergone training?
- Is a mental health expert involved with the group?
- What are the guidelines for confidentiality?
- Are there established ground rules for group participation?
- What is a typical meeting like?
- Is it free, and if not, what are the fees?
Red flags that might indicate a problematic support group include:
- Promises of a sure cure for your disease or condition
- High fees to attend the group
- Pressure to purchase products or services
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. At first, you may benefit from simply listening. Over time, however, contributing your own ideas and experiences may help you get more out of a support group.
Try a support group for a few weeks. If it doesn't feel like a good fit for you, consider a different support group or a different support group format.
Remember that a support group isn't a substitute for regular medical care. Let your doctor know that you're participating in a support group. If you don't think a support group is appropriate for you, but you need help coping with your condition or situation, talk to your doctor about counseling or other types of therapy.