What is a support group?

A support group, or social support group, is a group of people led by a professional who come together for the purpose of overcoming or dealing with a common problem. Under the guidance of the professional, they share help, comfort, encouragement, advice and guidance to meet their challenges together.

The group leader is usually someone who is not grappling with the problem faced by the support group members and who is specifically trained to provide support to them. This is what distinguishes a support group from a self-help group, which is a group that comes together to meet challenges without a professional leader.

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Support group vs self-help group

The main difference between a support group and a self-help group is that a support group is organized and facilitated by a professional or an agency. A self-help group, on the other hand, is more run by a group of members. A well-known example of a self-help group is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Another difference between the two is that support groups are usually structured with a set number of sessions, and there is often a membership fee. Many self-help groups are free to join and do not have a fixed end date. Both types of groups are beneficial in providing community and member support, and the best option depends on the specific needs of the individual seeking a group.

Challenges taken up

Support groups can be formed to address any challenge, including physical health issues, mental health issues, and life situations. They are common to help people with mental health issues and the mental and emotional side of physical health issues. There are also support groups for life transitions and other difficulties. There are support groups for adults, teens and even children, or children and adults together.

Support groups are generally characterized by the issues they focus on and the people they support. For example, there may be a support group for parents of cancer patients and another support group for children with cancer. There may be a support group for teens struggling with eating disorders and their parents, or for women dealing with infertility.

Other support groups may focus on life challenges such as grief over loss or life transitions such as starting a new career or the postpartum phase of motherhood. The focus can be broad, like anxiety, or narrow, like anxiety when traveling with a disability. Regardless of the goal or population, support groups help members who have something in common.

Examples of areas of intervention for support groups

  • Addiction
  • Alcoholism
  • Anxiety
  • Cancer treatment
  • Provision of care
  • Career transition
  • Recovery from child abuse
  • Chronic disease
  • Depression
  • Disabled
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Victims of domestic violence
  • Eating disorders
  • Geographical relocation
  • Bereavement or loss
  • Infertility
  • Injury recovery
  • Parents of children with special needs
  • Pregnancy or postpartum
  • Religious oppression
  • Retirement
  • Recovery from sexual abuse
  • Special mental health condition
  • Specific physical health condition
  • Traumatic event recovery
  • Weightloss

Types

In addition to the different challenges faced by support groups and the people they serve, there are other differences between them. Support groups can differ in how they meet, how they are structured or offer support, and what members do during sessions.

Meetings and communication

Support groups can meet in person or online using video conferencing platforms. Face-to-face meetings can take place in hospitals, clinics, treatment centers, organizational offices or community centers, while online meetings can be accessed from any location via the Internet.

Both have advantages and disadvantages, and each option can limit access to different groups of people. Those with social anxiety, physical disability, chronic illness, or transportation limitations may prefer to meet online, for example, while those who are uncomfortable with or without technology. Internet access may prefer in-person options. Online meetings can be less personal, and in-person meetings can be less convenient.

The ideal meeting setting, online or in person, depends on the preferences and needs of the group members.

Media type and content

The type of support offered by a support group and the content available depends on the support group and its professional leader.

The content is generally somewhat structured and can be program specific. Leaders can teach skills or provide information about coping. Guest experts may be called upon to speak on specific topics relevant to members and their challenges. There is often an opportunity to connect, ask questions and share experiences as a group.

How to prepare

Preparing for a support group begins with choosing a support group. Doctors, clinics, hospitals, nonprofits, and healthcare websites can suggest support groups and provide information about them.

It is important to ask yourself questions before registering. For example:

  • Are there any fees?
  • Who is supported by the group?
  • What are the rules?
  • What time do we meet?
  • Where is the meeting located?
  • What do I need to do to get involved in the group? Can I attend only as needed?
  • Who is the group leader?
  • What should I expect at meetings?

Once these questions are answered, it will be clearer how to prepare for the first meeting. It can also be helpful to set goals or intentions before you begin and to take notes of any observations or thoughts.

Benefits and results

The benefits of social support groups go beyond the structured content provided by leaders and the information provided by experts. Support groups incorporate structured social support for members with common difficulties or circumstances, and social support has been shown to improve physical health, mental health, and the ability to cope with stressors.

The combination of professional support and member support helps members more easily overcome and cope better with their common challenges.

A word from Verywell

Dealing with any type of physical health, mental health, or life challenge can be difficult. This is especially true when you are feeling lonely or are the only one in that situation. If you are facing something difficult in your life and you feel lonely, overwhelmed, or not supported enough, you may benefit from a social support group.

It can be especially helpful to have the support of others who share the same or similar challenges, as well as the support of a qualified professional.

This option does not replace physicians or other physical or mental health professionals. However, it can help improve your health and well-being as well as other treatments provided by your healthcare team.

Virginia S. Braud