Are you going through a rough patch? Do you feel like you’re the only one in the world going through it?

You’re not.

A support network can lead to a better journey and greater overall health. Some people get the understanding they need from family and friends. But for others, a group of folks facing the same challenges provides the lift they need.

Gerald Goodman, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA, says those groups can help even if you have other strong relationships elsewhere.

He says people can feel “alone in the group, alone in the family, alone amongst your friends. Feeling ‘not emotionally known.’”

What is a support group?

Also called a mutual support group or self-help group, a support group is a set of folks who get together to talk about a specific thing, be it a condition, problem, or something personal.

People in these groups have a unique opportunity to spend time with folks who know exactly what they're going through. They can compare notes and insights they can only get from someone with intimate knowledge of their experience.

A support group has four basic features:

  1. Members who are going through the same or similar issue(s)
  2. An expectation of give and take
  3. Leadership that comes from within the group
  4. No fees or only modest charges

What can a support group do for me?

According to Rena Phillips, support groups saved her family.

Phillips’s son is a little person. When he was born, the nurses at the hospital connected her with Little People of America and a local support group. Rena got practical information about how people of short stature do things like buy clothes and learn to write and cut with scissors differently.

As helpful as that was, it wasn’t until her daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder that Phillips found her passion for support groups and the service they can provide.

She found connecting to a support system much harder when dealing with mental illness.

“I had church and family and support groups to help me deal with the issues surrounding raising a child with physical differences, but none of that was available to me when dealing with something mental. That side of it is left out. People don’t address that side of it.”

When her daughter was hospitalized at the age of 19, the psychiatric nurse connected Phillips with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Through NAMI’s information sessions and groups, Phillips got what she needed.

“The group changed me so that my reactions and my ability to handle the situation changed,” Phillips says. “I learned coping mechanisms, conversation mechanisms, and how to set boundaries. I learned from others’ real-life situations. I could have gone to a therapist all day long and I would not have gotten that. You can’t get that anywhere else.

“After 13 years, I still learn things from the other members of the support group.”

Her membership helped Phillips and her family so much that she became a group facilitator and now trains other facilitators for NAMI.

“Everyone needs the ability to interact with people who are walking that same walk you are,” she says.

How do I find one?

There are both online and in-person support groups available for nearly any situation you can imagine. To find an in-person group, you can go through:

  • State or national self-help clearinghouses
  • Organizations dealing with your topic
  • Hospitals
  • Churches

A quick Internet search probably will give you a few local options.

What should I look for?

Everyone wants something different, but here are some things you'll want to make sure a group has before you join:

  • It meets in a convenient place.
  • It has consistent, reliable meetings.
  • Discussions are solution-based.
  • Its membership is stable.
  • Group members facilitate or moderate the group.
  • Anything discussed in the group is confidential.

Some groups may have a psychologist or therapist affiliated with it. Goodman says the most effective ones have specially trained psychologists that give the group tools to run itself, but don’t intervene on a regular basis.

“We find that better outcomes are related to the group owning itself and running itself with rotating leaders,” Goodman says.

Are there red flags?

If you don’t feel a connection with the group, you’ll know it’s not the right one for you. Goodman warns a bad group “can be damaging to someone going in vulnerable and instead of feeling you’re not alone, you feel more alone.”

Some other things to look out for include:

  • High fees
  • Pressure to purchase products or services
  • A religious agenda pushed upon members
  • Promises of a cure
  • One or two members monopolizing the discussion
  • Negativity without solutions
  • Large groups with short meetings

How do I know I’ve found the right one?

Goodman says a good support group shares these qualities:

  • Uncommon honesty that leads to genuine intimacy
  • Acceptance and lack of judgment
  • Empathy and the ability to express it

If you find like-minded people who share these qualities, you’ll feel a sense of safety and trust that will reduce your vulnerability.

Ultimately, Goodman says, “You know you’ve found the right group if you consistently walk away at the end of the session feeling you’ve had the experience of being really emotionally understood.”

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