Support groups can be helpful to cope with distress

Here's what you need to know about meeting people who are in the same life situation as yours

Aaheli Dasgupta

What is a support group?

Support groups comprise of people who may be going through similar difficulties (or life experiences). They can form a great source of comfort as these groups encourage the members to share their experiences, provide a safe space to express themselves, feel connected and offer practical resources to cope.

A support group can be about any topic, starting from cancer to coping with workplace stress. The groups can vary and use different formats based on the kind of issue faced by the group. For example, the group can be formal with a mental health expert to facilitate the group or can have volunteer members who facilitate the group. The meetings can take place either face to face or over online platforms.

What happens in a support group?

The groups meet on a regular basis (weekly to monthly) to discuss their day to day struggles while other members offer an empathetic ear and suggest possible steps or resources that can help them. The aim of most support groups is to provide a space of warmth and understanding that the members may not usually find outside. Sometimes, they also invite an expert who talk about specific ways of coping or understanding any problems that the caregivers may face. For example, a caregivers support group can have an expert talk about ways to communicating better with their loved ones with illness.

How are support groups helpful?

A review studyfound that peer support groups can have a positive impact on the members. A person going through an emotional distress or a mental health issue can feel isolated. They can find it difficult to restructure their lives and come to terms with their situation. In such a case, having someone who has been through a similar situation as theirs can help find reassurance for their situation, learn new coping mechanisms or even gain a new perspective. 

Support groups can help mentor new members which can provide a sense of assurance, purpose and an overall feel good experience. It may also provide a good platform to practice adaptive behaviors that one is trying to incorporate and get feedback from members.

When support groups are not enough

Of course, support groups are not foolproof. Some situations where support groups may not be ideal include:

  • If someone experiences anxiety in social situations, they may want to asses and consider if they’d like to be a part of online groups.

  • If group members fail to maintain boundaries. It may end up affecting some members adversely.

  • If the members are not committed enough to attend meetings frequently then the group may eventually lose members and cease to exist. This may leave a lot of members at a loss and they may experience grief as a result.

  • If the group is not screened then chances are there maybe a lot of heterogeneity in the group. This may lead to a lot of conflicts in the group,and too much time may be dedicated to resolving these conflicts. Most members then may not feel secure and instead find it burdensome to attend meetings.


How can you set up a support group?

If there are no support groups accessible to you or they do not focus on a cause you connect with, you could consider setting up one. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

Common purpose:For a group to successfully thrive, having common experiences or a common purpose is crucial.

Facilitator: A facilitator is the one who leads discussions. They are the ones who set up meetings, arrange for experts if needed, ensure that the discussion is productive, encourage a secure environment, manage conflict among the members and ensures that the group maintains its boundaries and limitations.

Members: The group can screen their members on the basis of a criteria, or invite anyone who is interested. The member should be clearly explained the rules of the group which includes talking about how the group is a safe place, importance of maintaining confidentiality, staying empathetic, being nonjudgmental towards other members and avoid offering unsolicited advice to them.

Schedule meetings: Decide if the meet ups need to be weekly, fortnightly or on monthly basis. The members and facilitators need to ensure that the same venue is maintained for the meetings, and the members will have to be notified in advance in case of any change. If new members are being taken it, make sure that there is enough room for them. Take into consideration that some of the members may be caregivers and may not have a safe space to leave their loved ones.

For more information on support groups you can read the WHO guideline.