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David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Support groups: Find information, encouragement and camaraderie
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Dec 1, 2007

You're facing a challenging disease or negotiating a major life change, but you don't have to go it alone. Find out how to choose the best support group.
Think support group and what do you picture? A small gathering of people sharing personal stories? A weekend educational seminar led by a professional facilitator? An online discussion group you can join from home at any time?

If you envisioned all of these as support groups, you're correct. Support groups are as varied as the challenges faced by those who join them. And regardless of your challenge, there likely is a support group to help you.

Support group benefits
People with chronic medical conditions ? cancer or mental illness, for example ? can benefit from attending support groups. You may also find a support group helpful if you've been a victim of abuse or crime, you're battling addiction, or you're caring for a special needs child or elderly parent.

Attending a support group isn't mandatory, and not everyone wants or needs support beyond their family and friends. Depending on your circumstances, however, it may be helpful to turn to others outside your immediate circle for help. You may feel less alone with your situation when talking with people who face or have faced similar challenges.

In a support group, you'll find people with problems similar to yours. Group members will offer you emotional support, practical information and tips on how to cope with your unique situation. The key is finding a group that matches your needs ? and personality.

Support group formats
In general, support groups fall into two main formats: those led by professional facilitators ? such as a nurse, social worker or psychologist ? and those led by group members that are often called peer or self-help groups.

Some groups are educational and structured. For example, the group leader may invite a doctor, psychologist, nurse or social worker to talk on a topic related to the group's needs. Others emphasize emotional support and shared experience. Some deal only with a specific problem, such as breast cancer, while others have a broader focus.

In addition to traditional support groups, the Internet offers online support groups and communities.

  • Message boards are like virtual bulletin boards with lists of messages on similar topics posted by users. You can read some or all the messages, called posts. You can reply to other users' messages, post a new message or simply browse the list.
  • Chat rooms operate on the same premise as message boards. The difference is that they operate in real time, and there's no delay in the exchange of information. It's like being in a room talking to others who have a similar interest. But you're not talking out loud. You're talking through your keyboard.
  • Blogs. A blog is a Web site typically maintained by one person who publishes regular commentary ? often in a form that reads like an online diary. There are many blogs on the Web where you can read a person's detailed account of their experience with a health problem. Usually, blogs offer the ability to post comments in response to each blog entry. While blogs are generally less interactive than message boards or chat rooms, they often attract a community of people with shared interests.
  • Electronic mailing lists operate by e-mail. To participate you join a mailing list and, as a member, you receive e-mails from other members. Each time anyone in the group sends an e-mail, you get a copy. If you send an e-mail, a copy goes to everyone.
If you're not computer savvy and you don't wish to leave home to attend meetings, you can join a support group in which members write personal letters to one another (round robin groups). Telephone-conference support groups and even videoconference support groups have been and are available on an experimental basis. And if those options don't appeal to you, you may wish to consider one-on-one counseling.

How to find a support group
What support group, if any, you choose may depend largely on what's available in your community and whether you're confined to your home, have access to a computer or are able to travel. To find a support group:

  • Ask a health care provider for assistance. A doctor, nurse, social worker, chaplain or psychologist may be able to recommend one.
  • Look in your local telephone book or check your newspaper for a listing of support resources.
  • Contact community centers, libraries, churches, mosques, synagogues or temples in your area.
  • Talk to your priest, pastor, rabbi, imam or other religious or spiritual leader.
  • Ask others you know with the same illness or life situation for suggestions.
  • Contact a state or national organization devoted to your disease, condition or life situation. Your local library may have lists of organizations dedicated to people in your situation.
  • Search the Internet. Many state and national organizations have Web sites that offer information on support groups. Some offer ask-the-expert features.
Most support groups are free, collect voluntary donations or charge only modest membership dues to cover expenses.

How to select your support group
Each type of support group has its own advantages and disadvantages. You may find that you prefer a structured, moderated group. Or you may feel more at ease meeting less formally with a small group of people.

If you're uncomfortable about sharing personal information with a group of people you don't know, of any size, consider attending one meeting and listening, rather than talking. Or consider the Internet. But be careful. The anonymity of the Internet may be appealing, but the trade-off may be that you don't know who else is online with you or whether you can believe everything you read. Look for groups affiliated with a reputable organization or hosted by an expert.

If you decide to take part in a group (real or virtual), try it out a few times. If you don't find it useful or comfortable, you don't have to continue. You may have to experiment with different kinds of support groups before you find one that meets your needs.

Use caution
Beware of support groups that put their interests before yours. Look for these red flags:

  • Promises of a sure cure for your disease or condition
  • Promises of quick solutions to your disease, condition or life situation
  • Meetings that are predominantly "gripe" sessions
  • A group leader or member who urges you to stop medical treatment
  • A charismatic group leader who demands cult-like allegiance
  • High fees to attend the group or having to purchase products or services
  • If there's anything that makes you feel uncomfortable ? from profane language to the credentials of the group leader ? try another group.
Remember, your goal is to find a support group in which you feel safe and comfortable enough to listen to others and to discuss your unique situation.
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