Strength in Numbers: Support Groups

“Regardless of the road we follow, we all head for the same destination, recovery of the [alcoholic] person. Together, we can do what none of us could accomplish alone. We can serve as a source of personal experience and be an ongoing support system for recovering alcoholics.”            -Alcoholics Anonymous

I posted an article mid-February about disclosing mental illness–when, how, where, to whom, etc. It may seem easier to deal with mental illness alone, but great strength can be found in numbers. The same is true with addiction; more often than not, disclosing addiction to trustworthy individuals can empower and motivate you to overcome your addiction. There is great power found letting other people in so they can can comfort you, support you, and keep you accountable. Your family and friends will have an important role in your recovery and healing, but this post is about the kinship and healing you can find beyond your immediate circle of support and in support groups.

You have likely heard of Alcoholics Anonymous or “A.A.” This is an international fellowship where those looking to overcome alcoholism will be encouraged and supported towards sobriety. People all across the spectrum of alcoholism take part in these A.A. meetings, and participants become friends and a support system.  Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most well-known examples of a support group, but support groups are certainly not limited to overcoming alcoholism. In short, a support group is a gathering of people who share a common health concern/condition, an interest or a specific situation–such as breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, addiction, or long-term caregiving.  

The general purpose of support groups is to help identify healthy and effective coping strategies, as well as skills often geared to mitigating feelings of angst, fear, pain, and loss. The groups also provide a great support network—in support groups you can find other members in similar circumstances with similar feelings with whom you can share in an open and unedited fashion. The group allows you to be where you are and validates and normalizes what you are feeling. Imagine the benefits of being surrounded by people who not only support you, but understand what you are feeling and going through!

Support groups are available worldwide. If you are in search of a particular support group, ask your doctor, or mental health provider for recommendations, or search the internet, contact local centers (community centers, libraries, churches, etc.), or ask someone you know in a similar situation for their suggestions. In addition, there are many options online including chat rooms, email lists, newsgroups, FaceBook groups, blogs, or social networking sites. Help is out there!

On the other hand, group therapy is a more formal type of mental health treatment that brings together several people with similar conditions under the guidance of a trained mental health provider. Its focus is more educational, therapeutic, and process-oriented. It provides a forum for change and growth, and there is often a theme presented for the entire group, with specific outcomes anticipated.  Support groups are less structured, with no set curriculum, and the facilitator can be a lay person or anyone who has an interest in the subject (instead, many themes may enter a discussion by a fluid group of members, and the facilitator guiding from the side). The following are a few of the key differences between support groups and group therapy:

  • Openness. Oftentimes, support groups are very open, meaning individuals can come and go as they please. If participants are unable to make it, the group carries on as normal. With a therapy group, participant’s attendance is crucial to the benefit of the whole.
  • Size.  Therapy groups range from four or six to ten individuals. Support groups can be communal, allowing more participants.
  • Facilitator’s role. Therapy groups function because of the therapist at the helm, directly leading and educating the group. In support groups, however, the facilitator, who is typically a selected participant, guides from the side, allowing participants to make comments and build off of one another. In both cases, facilitators objective is to create a safe learning space for all participants.

Each type of group offers a unique dynamic and the key is finding a group that meets your specific needs and association. Not everyone will find it helpful to participate in the more intense, focused, therapy-based experience of group therapy; however, nearly everyone can benefit from a support group. Support groups are readily available and are often free. Benefits from participating in both a support group as well as group therapy include feeling less lonely, isolated or judged; gaining a sense of empowerment and control; improving coping skills; talking openly and honestly about your feelings; reducing distress, depression, anxiety or fatigue; developing a clearer understanding of what to expect with your situation; getting practical advice or information about treatment options; and comparing notes about resources, such as doctors and alternative options.

Support groups and group therapy have an important place in healing and recovery–be it from addiction or from mental illness. Depending on the situation, it may be beneficial to see a therapist one-on-one, in addition to attending groups. In some cases, medication is also necessary. If you would like more information, please contact me today. I am more than happy to schedule a session with you or your loved one and help create a plan for healing. When looking for resources to address addiction or mental health issues, do not forget about the strength of numbers you can find by participating in support groups and/or group therapy!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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