Support groups: Make connections, get help

If you're facing a major illness or stressful life change, you don't have to go it alone. A support group can help. Find out how to choose the right one. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Support groups bring together people facing similar issues, whether that's illness, relationship problems or major life changes. Members of support groups often share experiences and advice. It can be helpful just getting to talk with other people who are in the same boat.

While not everyone wants or needs support beyond that offered by family and friends, you may find it helpful to turn to others outside your immediate circle. A support group can help you cope better and feel less isolated as you make connections with others facing similar challenges. A support group shouldn't replace your standard medical care, but it can be a valuable resource to help you cope.

Understanding support groups

A support group is a gathering of people who share a common health concern or interest. A support group usually focuses on a specific situation or condition, such as breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, addiction or long-term caregiving, for example. Support groups are not the same as group therapy sessions. Group therapy is a formal type of mental health treatment that brings together several people with similar conditions under the guidance of a trained mental health provider.

Support groups may be formed by a lay person with the condition or by someone interested in it, such as a family member. In some cases, support groups may be formed by nonprofit organizations, advocacy organizations, mental health clinics or other organizations.

Support groups also come in a variety of formats, including in person, on the Internet or by telephone. They may be led by professional facilitators — such as a nurse, social worker or psychologist — or by group members. Some groups are educational and structured. For example, the group leader may invite a doctor, psychologist, nurse or social worker to talk about a topic related to the group's needs. Other support groups emphasize emotional support and shared experiences.

Benefits of support groups

Regardless of format, in a support group, you'll find people with problems similar to yours. Members of a support group typically share their personal experiences and offer one another emotional comfort and moral support. They may also offer practical advice and tips to help you cope with your situation.

Benefits of participating in support groups may include:

  • Feeling less lonely, isolated or judged
  • Gaining a sense of empowerment and control
  • Improving your coping skills and sense of adjustment
  • Talking openly and honestly about your feelings
  • Reducing distress, depression or anxiety
  • Developing a clearer understanding of what to expect with your situation
  • Getting practical advice or information about treatment options
  • Comparing notes about resources, such as doctors and alternative options

How to find a support group

To find a support group:

  • Ask your doctor or other health care provider for assistance. Your doctor, nurse, social worker, chaplain or psychologist may be able to recommend a support group for you.
  • Look in your local telephone book or check your newspaper for a listing of support resources.
  • Contact community centers, libraries, churches, mosques, synagogues or temples in your area.
  • Ask others you know with the same illness or life situation for suggestions.
  • Contact a state or national organization devoted to your disease, condition or situation.
  • Search the Internet. Online support groups are available as email lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, blogs and social networking sites, such as Facebook.

What support group, if any, you ultimately choose may depend largely on what's available in your community, whether you have access to a computer or whether you're able to travel.

Aug. 01, 2012 See more In-depth