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What is a Self-Help Group? Types, Examples, Benefits

Self-help groups allow people to feed their natural tendency to seek acceptance, comfort, and understanding in a safe setting. People come together in the setting – whether face-to-face or Internet-based – to openly share common experiences and challenges, while offering mutual support (Online Mental Health Self-Help is Available and Effective).

Self-help support groups are inherently participatory and provide members with the opportunity to get help, give help, and help themselves through the sharing of knowledge and experience.

What is a Self-Help Group?

What is a self-help group? The simple answer is that self-help groups offer emotional support and practical help with a mental health challenge, experience, or concern shared by all the members.

“Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’” ~C.S. Lewis

Self-help groups that are specifically for mental health are made up of peers with similar mental or emotional issues. Since these groups are typically peer-led and informal, mental health professionals consider them an adjunct to formal therapy. Also known as mutual help groups, the goal of these groups is to assist one another in coping with and, if possible, recovering from their mental and emotional challenges.

You can find a wide variety of types of self-help groups. Some simply consist of two or three people getting together for coffee, sharing experiences and strategies. Others consist of small groups meeting at community centers or large, formal organizations that offer support and mentoring. Regardless of the type of group, the self-help process includes three aspects:

  1. Each person may contribute to the group
  2. Each person decides what activities and advice will work for his or her individual needs
  3. The group facilitates open and honest communication in a non-judgmental environment

These three characteristics create the setting in which mutual help and aid can occur among participants. If you join a group and feel like your contribution is discouraged, or if others react negatively to what you’ve shared, consider leaving and looking for another group.

The different types of self-help groups share three structural characteristics in that they are:

  • Usually peer led – Although some self-help groups have a professional or counselor as leader, most are peer-led. Individuals who participate as members take turns leading the meetings, but do not have authority in the group. Leading and sharing are not requirements. Members can simply listen and share, as they feel comfortable.
  • Open-ended – self-help groups have no attendance requirements. Although, regular attendance may be encouraged, people attend when they feel the need and their schedule permits.
  • Little or no participation cost – individuals may donate funds, if able, to cover costs of refreshments or the cost of meeting space. It’s through these voluntary member donations that the groups sustain themselves.

Types of Self-Help Groups

The various types of self-help groups range from regular, informal meetings of two or three individuals to large, organized groups with a national presence. Some of the most common self-help group models include:

Twelve Step Groups – Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), founded in 1935, developed this popular type of self-help group. The 12 steps provide a guide for recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction, and a number of other addiction-like behaviors.

AA and the other 12 step programs modeled from it work from a spiritual basis that guides participants to turn their lives over to a “higher power,” like God or other spiritual guide. Relinquishing control to a personal higher power is essential to recovery in these programs. Participants remain anonymous, only giving first names when sharing with the group.

Members must also admit powerlessness over their alcohol or drug addiction. Group members offer support and guidance to one another as they work through the 12 steps on the road to recovery. In addition to help with alcoholism, other 12 step programs include: Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Gambler’s Anonymous (GA), and Overeaters Anonymous (OA), and more.

Online Groups – online support communities represent a growing trend in the self-help movement. These groups include chat rooms, forums, and closed social networks. One benefit of these is that they provide around-the-clock access to support. Occasionally, a professional moderates online groups, especially during certain planned discussions, but a great many are organized and run by peers. Check out the HealthyPlace Online Forum to see the wide variety of topics discussed there. The Internet offers a vast array of these online groups that address just about any mental illness or challenge you can think of.

Traditional Support Group – these support groups usually meet in a community meeting room or other public space. They address specific mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and many more. You can also find groups that offer support to people living with a mentally ill loved one. Getting together with others who have experienced similar challenges and adversity can help ease the stress and feelings of isolation when you care for a mentally ill family member. Likewise, people with mental health issues can benefit greatly by socializing with others with the same illness. A traditional face-to-face support group offers a safe place to do so.

Benefits of Self-Help Groups

Those who participate in self-help groups are 50% less likely to be hospitalized due to their mental illness than people who simply go to therapy or other community programs that do not include self-help strategies (Best Self-Help When Living with a Mental Illness). That amounts to an immense savings in medical costs alone.

Further, these programs provide a social support system for members, which is especially helpful for people with conditions that tend to isolate them. The mutual help aspect of self-help groups helps the person providing help as well as the person receiving it.

According to a study conducted in 1995 by the Center for the Study of Issues in Public Mental Health, self-help group participation increases self-esteem and gives a higher personal confidence of recovery. People who participate in these groups regularly have reduced symptoms and are more likely to return to work.


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Last Updated: 04 October 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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