There is never a need to suffer in silence.
Countless support groups are available that provide participants with encouragement, guidance, and camaraderie with others dealing with similar circumstances.
Such groups are offered for a wide range of issues and may be facilitated by a clinician or layperson with shared experiences.
This article will describe the many benefits of support groups, research examining their effectiveness, and various useful resources. In doing so, it will convey how adding a layer of empathetic peers to one’s support system enhances our ability to cope with some of life’s most formidable challenges.
This Article Contains:
The Psychology of Support Groups: Why Are They Important?
Support groups offer a great way for individuals to feel encouraged and comforted by those who can truly empathize.
People often feel alienated in their own grief, confusion, and frustration. With support groups, this sense of isolation is diminished because group members can share similar experiences and pain.
Such groups also promote a sense of belonging, while enabling participants to form deep bonds with others and to benefit from multiple perspectives. They also provide a terrific source of information and educational opportunities.
Solomon (2004) describes the importance of peer-delivered services (i.e., support groups) in providing social support, which has powerful stress-buffering effects. Peer social support provides both emotional support (e.g., self-confidence, self-esteem, assurance, comfort, etc.) and information support (e.g., feedback, knowledge sharing, advice, etc.).
Support groups are also important because they help to reduce any stigma associated with particular problems. For example, individuals with psychiatric issues are often reluctant to seek treatment because they are ashamed of their symptoms/diagnoses.
By identifying with others sharing the same diagnosis, social support is increased along with resistance to stigma and stereotype rejection (Crabtree, Haslam, Postmes, & Haslam, 2010).
Overall, support groups represent a valuable treatment option because they reduce stigma, provide relevant information, enhance social support and bonding, and foster confidence and empowerment.
Are They Effective? 21 Research Findings
While there is a paucity of empirical research examining the impact of support groups, existing studies indicate a number of benefits.
Research studies supporting the effectiveness of support groups are displayed in the table below.
|Study type and focus||Support group benefits and authors|
|Meta-analysis of addiction-focused support groups||Increased treatment engagement, reduced risk behaviors related to HIV and hepatitis C, reduced addiction-related behaviors like cravings (Tracy & Wallace, 2016)|
|Study measuring social support among kinship caregivers participating in support groups versus those not attending||Increased social support among caregivers (Strozier, 2012)|
|Semi-experimental study in which family caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients who engaged in support sessions were assessed at the beginning and end of group sessions||Increased spiritual wellbeing, decreased caregiving strain among family caregivers (Mohammadi & Babaee, 2011)|
|Meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of support groups for caregivers of patients with dementia||Improvements in caregivers’ psychological wellbeing, depression, burden, and social outcomes (Chien et al., 2011)|
|Qualitative study examining school-based support groups for teens with an addicted parent||Increased knowledge, resilience, and coping; improved school performance and relationships (Gance-Cleveland, 2004)|
|Meta-analysis examining the effect of support groups on people living with HIV||Reduced mortality and morbidity, better quality of life, increased care retention (Bateganya, Amanyeiwe, Uchechi, & Dong, 2015)|
|Quasi-experimental design examining the impact of psychosocial support groups among pregnant South African women recently diagnosed with HIV||Higher levels of active coping and lower levels of avoidant coping; for those who attended at least half of the sessions, significantly improved self-esteem (Mundell et al., 2011)|
|Quantitative/qualitative study examining the impact of support groups on traumatic stress responses among women who experienced a stillbirth||Fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms, perceived as important for managing grief (Cacciatore, 2007)|
|Meta-analysis of randomized trials investigating support group effectiveness for individuals with cancer||Improved illness adaptation, quality of life, emotional state, and marital relationships (Zabalegui, Sanchez, Sanchez, & Juando, 2005)|
|Study in which an online survey was completed among individuals who were active in online support groups for those with arthritis, cancer, or fibromyalgia||Perceived sense of empowerment (van Uden-Kraan, Drossaert, Taal, Seydel, & van de Laar, 2009)|
|Randomized controlled trial in which the long-term impact of engaging in support groups among heart patients was examined||Healthier eating habits (Lindsay, Smith, Bellaby, & Baker, 2009)|
|Study examining the impact of a minimally guided peer support group for people with psychosis||Positive effects in the areas of social support and social network; frequent attendance related to increased self‐efficacy, social network, and quality of life (Castelein et al., 2008)|
|Meta-analysis examining the impact of peer support on symptoms of depression||Lower reported depressive symptoms (Pfeiffer, Heisler, Piette, Rogers, & Valenstein, 2011)|
|Examined interview data pertaining to the perceived impact of support groups for families of individuals with mental illness||A ‘feeling of togetherness’ and greater expectations in terms of receiving illness-related information and developing coping skills (Ponnuchamy et al., 2005)|
|Mixed-method study examining the therapeutic factors of online peer support groups for women with metastatic breast cancer||Some benefits reported by most, with helpful therapeutic factors including universality, information exchange, group cohesiveness, instillation of hope, catharsis, and altruism (Vilhauer, 2009)|
|Study examining the effects of an online support group for college students with elevated psychological distress||Improved anxiety symptoms (Ellis, Campbell, Sethi, & O’Dea, 2011)|
|Pilot study examining the effects of a support group among parents of a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder||Enhanced family empowerment, greater empowerment in terms of approaching service systems, more confidence in terms of considering community and political levels of empowerment (Banach, Ludice, Conway, & Couse, 2010)|
|Study examining sense of belonging by administering semi-structured interviews to young women with disabilities who participated in a support group||Enhanced self-confidence and disability pride, more disability information, greater opportunity to improve disability identity (Mejias, Gill, & Shpigelman, 2014)|
|Study comparing the safety of lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) students in schools with and without LGB support groups||Lower rates of suicide attempts and victimization (Goodenow, Szalacha, & Westheimer, 2006)|
|Randomized controlled trial examining the impact of peer support groups among exhausted healthcare workers||Improvements in general health and perceived work demands (Peterson, Bergström, Samuelsson, Åsberg, & Nygren, 2008)|
45 Benefits of Support Groups
Along with those listed above, there are many benefits of support groups. Here are 45:
|Benefits of support groups|
|Reduced isolation & loneliness||Improved communication skills|
|Increased information about specific issues||Enhanced marital relationships|
|Receipt of empathy from others||Enhanced spiritual wellbeing|
|More assertiveness||Increased hope|
|Better quality of life||Greater resilience|
|Increased healthy behaviors||Improved illness adaptation|
|Increased self-efficacy||Enhanced self-worth|
|Improved social competence||Greater social support|
|Feeling less judged||Enhanced family empowerment|
|Increased care retention||Receipt of useful feedback|
|Enhanced psychological wellbeing||Reduced perceived stigma|
|Feelings of validation||Catharsis|
|Greater self-acceptance||Reductions in substance use|
|Reduced caregiver burden & strain||Greater number of treatment options|
|Enhanced motivation to make healthy changes||Reduced post-traumatic stress symptoms|
|Enhanced sense of control||Reduced risk behaviors|
|Enhanced coping skills||Improved self-confidence|
|Improved school performance||Improved peer relationships|
|Reduced mental health symptoms||Enhanced disability pride|
|Reductions in substance cravings||Enhanced support networks|
|More involvement in altruistic & supportive behaviors||Reduced victimization among marginalized groups|
|Greater treatment engagement||Enhanced disability identity|
|Improvements in perceived work demands|
How Do They Work?
Support groups work by bringing together individuals who understand the primary issues faced by the group, and this creates a unique support system.
For such a community to be beneficial, an empathetic and skilled leader must facilitate it. An effective leader can also ensure that groups run efficiently and are not jeopardized by individuals who overstep group rules and boundaries. Such leaders can also convey and follow confidentiality requirements in order to protect the privacy of participants.
In terms of the underlying processes involved in support groups, Salzer (2002) has described the theories below.
Social support refers to “the web of social relationships that surround individuals” (Heaney & Israel, 2008, p. 190). It may be as emotional support (e.g., empathy and understanding), instrumental support (e.g., the provision of actual help and services), informational support (e.g., advice and information), or appraisal support (e.g., self-evaluation-related support).
This concept refers to “truth based on personal experience with a phenomenon” (Borkman, 1976, p. 445). Group leaders and members possess experiential knowledge through their shared experience with the group’s primary focus (e.g., addiction support groups are typically run by individuals who are managing their own substance use issues).
“Helper” therapy principle
Described by Riessman (1965), this theory refers to the idea that it is both the individuals receiving help and those providing it who benefit from supportive approaches.
Social learning theory
This theory refers to the processes in which individuals learn by watching and imitating others (Bandura 1977).
Social comparison theory
The social comparison theory describes behavior as related to “the drive for self-evaluation and the necessity for such evaluations being based on comparisons with others” (Festinger, 1954, p. 138). Stated another way, people desire self-evaluation and will turn to others in order to gain such information and make comparisons with themselves.
While many of these theories have been around for a long time, they are informative regarding the mechanisms underlying support groups.
In summary, support groups enable participants to:
- Receive emotional support from other group members
- Benefit from group leaders and members with specific experiential knowledge
- Enjoy benefits from helping others
- Experience emotional changes by watching and imitating those in the group
- Change their self-evaluations through comparisons with relatable group members
What Issues Can Be Discussed?
Once confidentiality requirements are clear (e.g., with Alcoholics Anonymous groups, participants understand the necessity for being discreet about the privacy of fellow participants), there are endless topics that may be discussed.
Here are 26 examples:
|Addiction||Divorce and separation|
|Death and dying||Social anxiety/Introversion|
|Anger management||Mental health stigma|
|Chronic health problems||Suicide|
|Reproductive issues||Stressful life events|
|Job-related stress||Gender identity|
|Military/Veteran issues||Mental illness|
|Living with disabilities||Serious medical diagnoses|
|Serious food allergies||Weight issues|
4 Mental Health Resources for Your Groups
Plenty of resources are available for those who are considering either starting or joining a support group. Here are four useful books:
1. Grief and Loss Support Group Facilitator’s Manual – Susan Hansen, MS
This comprehensive manual is intended for group leaders interested in implementing a support group for those ages 12 and over.
It is focused on designing a 10-week grief and loss group, and contains many activities and resources such as lesson plans, sample flyers, and group guidelines.
It also includes discussions of various types of loss as well as the stages of grief.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. How to Lead a Weight Loss Support Group – Yaffa Kosloff
This book is designed to aid individuals interested in becoming weight-loss support group leaders.
It includes five meeting descriptions, along with exercises, menus, and other information intended to motivate and encourage participants interested in losing weight.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Leading Peer Support and Self-Help Groups: A Pocket Resource for Peer Specialists and Support Group Facilitators – Charles Drebing
This book is focused on teaching individuals how to become effective peer support/self-help leaders.
It is a pocket resource that contains a great deal of information and tools specifically intended to enhance group facilitation skills.
Find the book on Amazon.
4. A Circle of Men: The Original Manual for Men’s Support Groups – Bill Kauth
This book provides information on locating and/or inviting others to join support groups specifically intended for men.
It also describes the types of skills that are essential for facilitating effective men’s support groups (e.g., communication skills, conflict resolution, etc.).
Find the book on Amazon.
PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Tools
There are numerous effective tools on PositivePsychology.com for anyone interested in implementing a support group or improving the effectiveness thereof. Here are four examples:
Quality listening is integral to the success of support groups, and the Mindful Listening tool explores the importance of mindful listening. With mindful listening, one is fully absorbed in what a speaker is saying, as opposed to focusing on other thoughts.
To enhance mindful listening, the first part of this exercise involves having participants listen while one person shares a stressful aspect of their life and something they are looking forward to.
For the second step, group members break into groups of three and discuss a series of reflection questions (e.g., “How did you feel when listening during the exercise?” “How did your body feel right before speaking?” “Did your mind judge while listening to others?”). Finally, the entire group debriefs about the experiences just described. In doing so, individuals learn how to become more fully present and mindful listeners.
Setting boundaries in difficult conversations
Along with quality listening, setting boundaries is another important goal for support group leaders. This tool promotes healthy boundary setting by providing self-awareness strategies, a model to follow, and practice sessions. Group members engage in the following seven steps:
- Consider past occurrences of crossed boundaries. Think of situations in which you could not respond the way you would have liked.
- Share the above experiences with a partner.
- Map out a better response to boundary crossing.
- Imagine how others will respond to boundary-setting statements.
- Imagine how others will respond to your boundary setting.
- Role-play your new boundary-setting skills with a partner.
- Reflect on the exercise with the full group.
Overall, this exercise helps individuals to protect their rights as group members, which is essential for overall group success.
Inventing new strength labels
This exercise helps individuals to identify inspiring, kind, and humorous labels for each group member’s strengths. It is facilitated by first arranging the chairs in a circle, facing inward. Each person’s name is written on a whiteboard, and everyone is provided with a pad of sticky notes and a pen. Group members then engage in the following steps:
- Think about one of their own personal strengths.
- Share their strength story with the group.
- Once the group comes up with strength labels for everyone, they are written on sticky notes and attached to the whiteboard next to each person’s name.
- Here, the group discusses and reflects on various aspects of the exercise, such as what it was like for each person to share their strengths with the group.
In sum, this exercise helps group members develop a strength vocabulary, better understand the lens through which others see them, and reveal their own strengths with the group.
The positive team timeline
This tool aids groups in recalling and reflecting on their collective accomplishments and positive moments experienced as a group. It involves the following steps:
- Brainstorm and identify positive highlights from the group experience.
- Reflect on five accomplishments identified in the prior step and consider their impact for each person individually.
- Reflect on the group’s achievements and consider what strengths were needed to accomplish them. Here, the group considers both the strengths of each person and the strengths of the group.
- Reflect on and evaluate the exercise by responding to a series of questions (e.g., “When you look at your completed team timeline and your shared positive moments, how does it make you feel?”).
Overall, this tool promotes group success by building a comprehensive overview of shared experiences.
A Take-Home Message
Life is not a solo act. It’s a huge collaboration, and we all need to assemble around us the people who care about us and support us in times of strife.
The concept of support groups is not a new one. In fact, in tight-knit families and communities, support is often provided inherently. However, we don’t all benefit from this degree of social support and may also experience stressful or unusual life events that require a more defined approach.
Fortunately, there are many support groups available for just about every problem under the sun. Plus, if you can’t find a good fit, there are ample resources available for starting your own group.
Most importantly, whatever challenge you may face, you are not alone. And by surrounding yourself with a supportive circle of allies, you will be well on your way toward feeling stronger and more empowered.
If you wish to learn more about relationships, especially important if you are a support group leader, then consider our Positive Relationships Masterclass©. This masterclass is a complete, science-based training template for practitioners and coaches that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their personal and professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their mental wellbeing.
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- Mejias, N., Gill, C., & Shpigelman, C. (2014). Influence of a support group for young women with disabilities on sense of belonging. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 61, 208–220.
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