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Beyond Therapy: What are support groups?

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When most people think of “mental health,” they tend to think of therapy.

While therapy can be transformative, it isn’t the only option available to those seeking mental health support. Over the past few years there has been a big increase in other kinds of support options, each with their own strengths, costs, and approaches. Even if you want therapy, these other kinds of support may be helpful to use while you’re waiting to get started with your therapist. They may even be recommended by your therapist to help you make progress in therapy.

In our Beyond Therapy series, we’ll give you an overview of some of the most common and effective options other than therapy, how to figure out if they fit your needs, and where to look when you are ready for help. In this post, we focus on support groups.

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What are support groups?

Support groups are designed to bring together people who are dealing with a common problem. For example, there are support groups focused on substance use, depression, grief, trauma, eating disorders, and cancer, as well as taking care of a loved one with one with these conditions. They provide group members with opportunities to learn from each other’s experiences, share coping strategies, and provide encouragement and understanding. Most importantly, support groups provide a space for connecting with people who really “get it.”

Below are a few examples of free peer-led support groups:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness has support groups for adults with symptoms of a mental health condition. They also have support groups for loved ones of people with a mental health condition.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous offers support groups for individuals with an alcohol use problem. Al-Anon Family Groups offers support groups for people whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking.
  • Parenting Stress International has a range of support groups focused on the mental health challenges experienced by women and their loved ones during and following pregnancy.

The structure of support groups varies depending on the group. Usually, these groups will include about 5 to 10 individuals who share a common experience with you. They may be facilitated by a lay individual who also shares the group’s experience or a professional facilitator. Either way, the group leader’s job is to provide information, lead group activities, and guide meaningful discussion. They also work to make sure all group members feel safe and supported.

What are the pros and cons of support groups?

There are many benefits to support groups that may make them the right fit for you. By talking with people who share similar challenges, you can feel less isolated and stressed, deepen your understanding of your own experiences, and find new ways of coping. Support groups can also empower you to support others facing similar challenges.

Thousands of local and national support groups exist, meaning there are groups for just about every challenge people may face. It is much easier to find free support groups than it is to find free therapy. In addition, more and more support groups are being offered virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These factors make it easy to find the right support group regardless of what you’re dealing with, your budget, or where you live.

Some people feel anxious about opening up to a group about personal topics. Although group members agree to maintain confidentiality about other group member’s information, it is also common to feel worried about privacy when participating in support groups. Even if anxiety or privacy concerns are making you feel unsure about joining a support group, many people find that simply listening to the group’s discussion helps immensely. Support groups aren’t a good fit if you want to work one-on-one with a therapist or more independently manage your mental health. If this is true for you, explore Therapy4thePeople’s directory of free and low cost mental health supports to find other options like therapy, mental health apps, and hotlines.

How do I know if I should join a support group or start therapy?

Support groups can be a good entry into taking care of your mental health when you’re not sure if you need therapy yet. They are often free, easy to find, and offer support that can be hard to find in daily life. In your support group, you can learn about how other people are coping and may even discuss your uncertainty about starting therapy.

Although support groups share a lot in common with group therapy, they are a different type of mental health support. What makes them similar is that they both bring together people who share a common challenge. However, group therapy is more likely to focus on specific mental health conditions and be led by a licensed mental health provider. Group therapy is also less likely to be free, although depending on your insurance you may be able to participate at minimal cost.

If you think you might like to try individual or group therapy, explore our resources (Therapy Financial Aid 101, How Do I Know if I Need Therapy?, Finding the Right Therapist guides) to make the process easier. If you end up on a waitlist for therapy, you can join a support group in the meantime.

The more tools you have to support your mental health, the better. Support groups can be one of the many ways you take care of your mental health. For example, even if you’re already in therapy, your therapist may suggest that you join a support group focused on a challenge you are working on in therapy.

Who offers support groups and where can you find them?

Many types of organizations provide support groups, including national nonprofits and advocacy organizations, mental health clinics, hospitals, and community centers. Before joining a group, you can ask the facilitator questions about the group’s format to ensure that it is a good fit for you. It will be helpful to know who is eligible for the group, what time and where it meets, what typically happens in each group, ground rules for participation, and confidentiality guidelines.

If support groups sound like the right mental health resource for you, explore Therapy4thePeople’s directory, which includes local and national support group options. Our directory provides information on the cost and location of support groups, as well as information about whether the group is designed to help someone of your identity or background.

National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America also have lists of local and national support groups in the U.S.

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