Questions to ask before joining a support group

Each type of support group has its own advantages and disadvantages. You may find that you prefer a structured, moderated group. Or you may feel more at ease meeting less formally with a small group of people.

Ask these questions before joining a new support group:

  • Is it geared toward a specific condition?
  • Is the location convenient for regular attendance?
  • What is the meeting schedule?
  • Is there a facilitator or moderator?
  • Is a mental health expert involved with the group?
  • Is it confidential?
  • Does it have established ground rules?
  • What is a typical meeting like?
  • Is it free, and if not what are the fees?
  • Does it meet your cultural or ethnic needs?

Plan to attend a few support group meetings to see how you fit in. If the support group makes you uncomfortable or you don't find it useful, try another one. Remember that even a support group you like can change over time as participants come and go. Periodically evaluate the support group to make sure it continues to meet your needs.

Also be aware that you may be at a different stage of coping or acceptance than are others in the support group. Or they may have a different attitude about their situation. While such a mix can provide rich experiences, it may also be unhelpful or even harmful. For instance, some in the group may be pessimistic about their future, while you're looking for hope and optimism. Don't feel obligated to keep attending the group if a conflict or group dynamic is upsetting — find another group or just sit out for a while.

Support group red flags

Not all support groups are a good match for you. Some may be driven by the interests of one or two members. Look for these red flags that may signal a problem with a support group:

  • Promises of a sure cure for your disease or condition
  • Meetings that are predominantly gripe sessions
  • A group leader or member who urges you to stop medical treatment
  • High fees to attend the group
  • Pressure to purchase products or services
  • Disruptive members
  • Judgment of your decisions or actions

Be especially careful when you're involved in Internet support groups:

  • Keep in mind that online support groups are sometimes used to prey on vulnerable people.
  • Be aware of the possibility that people may not be who they say they are, or may be trying to market a product or treatment.
  • Be careful about revealing personal information, such as your full name, address or phone number.
  • Understand the terms of use for a particular site and how your private information may be shared.
  • Don't let Internet use lead to isolation from your in-person social network.

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. So at first, you may benefit from simply listening. Over time, though, contributing your own ideas and experiences can help you get more out of a support group. But remember that support groups aren't a substitute for regular medical care. Let your doctor know that you're participating in a support group. If a support group isn't your thing but you need help coping with your condition or situation, talk to your doctor about counseling or other types of therapy.

Aug. 01, 2012 See more In-depth