Over the last two decades, the mental health sectors have witnessed an emergence of support groups in almost every sphere of mental illness – ranging from alcoholism to bulimia to depression. In 1980, experts suggested that such helping groups were destined to become the foremost method of mental health care in the very near future. Recent statistics suggest that support groups now exist for almost every health problem listed by the World Health Organisation.
A number of theories have been proposed as to why this self-help trend has escalated over the past two decades. The most widely cited theory is that support groups have emerged as a direct result of the unavailability and inadequacy of health services for the individual. In essence, many modern-day individuals feel that health services are not up to standard, and have decided to create support groups in order to empower themselves.
The existence of mutual support groups has been traced back in history to the middle ages and renaissance. However, groups in these times were exclusive in character, with aid being extended only to members of a certain guild or community. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, over 191 societies were developed by lay-people in London to cope with the social, economic and health problems of what was a rapidly growing population.
Research has shown that support groups can play a vital role in the coping processes of sufferers. The data from a number of studies indicates that beneficial effects do occur in self-help groups in such diverse groups as discharged mental patients, parents of premature infants, widows, depression sufferers, drug and food abusers as well as sufferers of life-threatening illnesses, including arthritis, asthma, cancer and multiple sclerosis.
In South Africa, the Depression and Anxiety Support Group has probably played the most influential and noticeable role in this area, through the development of over 75 regional support groups country-wide. Of these, 28 are in rural or previously disadvantaged areas. These groups are co-ordinated and run by ex-sufferers, and generally meet once a month. Rita, a panic sufferer from Cape Town, felt that joining the group was the single most important factor in her recovery. “It was amazing to be in contact with other people who knew what it felt like to be suffering what I was having to endure”, says Rita. “For such a long time, I had felt so alone and misunderstood”, she adds.
Although the thought of starting a support group may seem daunting at first, all that is required is a venue and a group of people interested in working together in order to overcome a mutual problem. Most support groups remain informal in their approach, but the putting into practice of a few guidelines can guarantee the smooth running of any group.
Firstly, it is important for co-ordinator roles to be shared among members of the group. Because all sufferers are effectively experts in dealing with their own problems, they will all have the necessary knowledge and potential to help co-ordinating the group. This encourages all members to actively participate in the group’s activities.
Secondly, members should set their own goals for the next meeting. Personal goal-setting provides the basis for the next meeting, and also helps to avoid pressure and competition among members. Goal setting is an essential component of support group dynamics, and promotes positive change and development in members. The support group sessions should only centre around topics related to the specific problem or disorder at hand, focusing the group’s activities on a shared problem. It is essential for members to structure their expectations in accordance with the notion that the group is intended to offer mutual support and not therapy.
If needed, support groups can elicit professional help, but members should abstain from discussing symptoms, medication and side effects. The groups should preferably take a neutral stance on treatment issues, as this promotes an open-minded approach among members. In order to help prevent personality clashes, it is best to side step any personality issues that may emerge. The emphasis within the group should fall on support issues and not individual personalities. Such an approach also promotes a more diverse membership.
Healthy interpersonal dynamics should be fostered among group members. Communication skills in this regard can be taught and effectively implemented. One helpful technique is for members to make use of “I” statements when communicating their feelings and thoughts. This strategy promotes sharing and also discourages sermonising and mandating. Another useful skill involves members learning how to become active listeners in order to listen to and understand what fellow members are trying to say. Members should not be frightened of silence, and should learn to respect and acknowledge the healing that respect that accompanies silence.
Finally, the most important rule in any support group involves confidentiality and trust. Group members must be assured of strict confidentiality within the group – a sense of security in this regard encourages members to disclose feelings in an honest and open manner.
To assist with the starting up of a support group, the Depression and Anxiety Support Group can provide an initial start-up kit. The kit includes comprehensive information on how to organise, mobilise and maintain an active group, in addition to other useful information pertaining to education, publicity and finances. The kit includes a manual, video and audio tapes as well as a host of brochures and information.
 Tyler (1980) in Dies (1992) “The future of group therapy” Psychotherapy 29(1), 58-62
 Nash, K.B. & Kramer, K.D. (1993) “Self-help for suicide and disease in African communities” Journal of Applied Behavioural Science 29, 202-215
 Tracey, G.S. & Gussow, Z. (1976) “Self-help groups : A grass roots response to a need for services” Journal of Applied Behavioural Science 12 (3) 361-376
 Katz (1988) “Value of Self-help groups” in Social Work 33, 4 (p382-383)