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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 advocacy groups, interest 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.

Maintaining contact

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 (see below).

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 self-help support group is fully organized and managed by its members, who are commonly volunteers and have personal experience in the subject of the group's focus. These groups may also be referred to as fellowships, peer support groups, lay organizations, mutual help groups, or mutual aid self-help groups.

Professionally operated support groups are facilitated by professionals who do not share the problem of the members,[1] 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.[1]

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 support 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. Discussing 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."[2]

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.

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.[3] 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 Web sites."

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."[4]

Benefits and pitfalls

Several studies have shown the importance of the Internet in providing social support, particularly to groups with chronic health problems.[5] 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.[6]

Marc D. Feldman of the University of Alabama at Birmingham has warned about sympathy-seekers who invade Internet support groups.[7] 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

  • The 1996 novel Fight Club (and the 1999 film adaptation) 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.
  • The hit musical RENT, there is a support group to help sufferers of AIDS cope with their illness.
  • In Evermore, the teenage heroine's best friend is 'what you'd call an anonymous-group addict...she's attended twelve-step meetings for alcoholics, narcotics, codependents, debtors, gamblers, cyber addicts, nicotine junkies, social phobics, pack rats, and vulgarity lovers'[8]. Contemplating her lack of parental support, however, the heroine concludes that 'if standing before a room full of people, creating some sob story about her tormented struggle with that day's fill-in-the-blank addiction makes her feel important, well, who am I to judge'[9].

See also



  1. 1.0 1.1 APA Dictionary of Psychology, 1st ed., Gary R. VandenBos, ed., Washington: American Psychological Association, 2007.
  2. Ainsworth, Martha. "E-Therapy: History and Survey". Retrieved 2008-04-15.
  3. Potts, Henry W. W. ([2005]). "Online support groups: An overlooked resource for patients" (PDF). University College London. Retrieved 2008-03-30.
  4. Grohol, John M. (updated May 2004). "What to Look for in Quality Online Support Groups". Retrieved 2008-04-15.
  5. Powell, John; Aileen Clarke (2002). "The WWW of the World Wide Web: Who, What, and Why?" (guest editorial). Journal of Medical Internet Research 4 (1): e4. doi:10.2196/jmir.4.1.e4. PMC 1761925. PMID 11956036. Retrieved 2008-04-15.
  6. Potts, Henry W. W. ([2005]). "Online support groups: An overlooked resource for patients" (PDF). University College London. Retrieved 2008-03-30.
  7. Morelli, Jim, RPh. "Sympathy-Seekers Invade Internet Support Groups". Retrieved 2008-03-30.
  8. Alyson Noel, Evermore (London 2009) p. 37
  9. Noel, p. 38

External links

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