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Support groups: Make connections, and get help.

You don't have to go alone if you're facing a significant illness or stressful life change. A support group can help. Find out how to choose the right one.

 

Support groups bring together people who are going through or have gone through similar experiences. For example, this common ground might be cancer, chronic medical conditions, addiction, bereavement, or caregiving.

 

A support group allows people to share personal experiences, feelings, coping strategies, or firsthand information about diseases or treatments.

 

For many people, a health-related support group may fill a gap between medical treatment and the need for emotional support. A person's relationship with a doctor or other medical personnel may not provide adequate emotional support, and a person's family and friends may not understand the impact of a disease or treatment. A support group among people with shared experiences may function as a bridge between medical and emotional needs.

 

Structure of support groups

A nonprofit advocacy organization, clinic, hospital, or community organization may offer support groups. They also may be independent of any organization and run entirely by group members.

 

Formats of support groups vary, including face-to-face meetings, teleconferences, or online communities. A lay person — someone who shares or has shared the group's common experience — often leads a support group, but a group also may be led by a professional facilitator, such as a nurse, social worker, or psychologist.

 

Some support groups may offer educational opportunities, such as a guest doctor, psychologist, nurse, or social worker, to discuss a topic related to the group's needs.

 

Support groups are not the same as group therapy sessions. Group therapy is a specific type of mental health treatment that brings together several people with similar conditions under the guidance of a licensed mental health care provider.

 

Benefits of support groups

The shared experience among support group members often means they have similar feelings, worries, everyday problems, treatment decisions, or side effects. Participating in a group allows you to be with people who likely have a common purpose and the potential to understand one another.

 

The benefits of participating in a support group may include the following:

 

Feeling less lonely, isolated, or judged.

Reducing distress, depression, anxiety, or fatigue

Talking openly and honestly about your feelings

Improving skills to cope with challenges

Staying motivated to manage chronic conditions or stick to treatment plans

Gaining a sense of empowerment, control, or hope

Improving understanding of a disease and your own experience with it

Getting practical feedback about treatment options

Learning about health, economic or social resources

Possible risks

Support groups may have drawbacks, and influential groups generally depend on the facilitator to help avoid these problems. These problems may include the following:

 

Disruptive group members

Conversation dominated by griping

Lack of confidentiality

Emotional entanglement, group tension, or interpersonal conflicts

Inappropriate or unsound medical advice

Competitive comparisons of whose condition or experience are worse

Pros and cons of online support groups

Online support groups offer benefits and risks that are particular to that format. It's essential to consider these factors before joining an online group.

 

Benefits of online groups include:

 

More frequent or flexible participation

Opportunities for people who may not have local face-to-face support groups

A degree of privacy or anonymity

Risks of online support groups include the following:

 

Communication only by written text can lead to confusion or understanding and clarity among group members.

Anonymity may lead to inappropriate or disrespectful comments or behaviors.

Participation online may result in isolation from other friends or family.

Online communities may be particularly susceptible to misinformation or information overload.

People may use the online environment to prey on people, promote a product or commit fraud.

How to find a support group

Information about support groups may be available from the following:

 

Your doctor, clinic, or hospital

Nonprofit organizations that advocate for particular medical conditions or life changes

National Institutes of Health websites for specific diseases and conditions

 

Questions to ask before joining a support group

Support groups vary in how they are organized and led. Before joining a support group, ask the following questions:

 

Is the group designed for people with a specific medical condition or a particular stage of disease?

Does the group meet for a set period of time, or does it continue indefinitely?

Where does the group meet?

At what times and how often does the group meet?

Is there a facilitator or moderator?

Has the facilitator undergone training?

Is a mental health expert involved with the group?

What are the guidelines for confidentiality?

Are there established ground rules for group participation?

What is a typical meeting like?

Is it free, and if not, what are the fees?

Red flags that might indicate a problematic support group include the following:

 

Promises of a sure cure for your disease or condition

High fees to attend the group

Pressure to purchase products or services

Getting the most out of a support group

When you join a new support group, you may be nervous about sharing personal issues with people you don't know. You may benefit from simply listening. Over time, however, contributing your ideas and experiences may help you get more out of a support group.

 

Try a support group for a few weeks. If it doesn't feel like a good fit for you, consider a different support group or a different support group format.

 

Remember that a support group isn't a substitute for regular medical care. Let your doctor know that you're participating in a support group. If you don't think a support group is appropriate for you but need help coping with your condition or situation, talk to your doctor about counseling or other types of therapy.

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