The Healing Power of Support Groups

A woman I recognized from church, the wife of one of our eucharistic ministers, came in today, looking for information about "support groups for people with disabilities".  She couldn't find anything in the library catalog.

A few keyword searches with her terms were indeed fruitless.  The library owns no books about support groups for people with disabilities.  I began to feel her out and get a better idea of what she hoped to find.  Was this for course work?  Yes.  Was she on a deadline?  Yes, she had a week, so interlibrary loan was out.

Something told me to hand her our 211 Big Bend Community Resource Directory.  She didn't know about it, and flipped through it while I did some searches online.  The query began to firm up.  She really wanted to know how to start a support group.

That opened the door.  There are countless support groups for people dealing with all kinds of pain and suffering, but they share a common set of tested rules and procedures.  There are plenty of resources specific to this or that disability.  What she needed was support group know-how.

The bible of the support group world, I found, has been The Self-Help Group Sourcebook: Your Guide to Community & Online Self-Help Support Groups, which was published in 2002 by the American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse, St. Clare's Health Services, NJ.  But no library in town owned a copy, and it would now be eight years old, anyway.

A little web page for a local group in North Carolina, SupportWorks, led me to the up-to-date, online version of the Self-Help Group Sourcebook, selfhelpgroups.org, which takes you to "a keyword-searchable database of over 1,100 national, international, model and online self-help support groups", and also to the original New Jersey Self-Help Group Clearinghouse, which has a wealth of how-to guides on starting a group.  I gave her the link.

She liked the Community Resource Directory, and copied several phone numbers from it, but the Self-Help Group site's name gave me another clue.  A keyword search on "self-help" instead of "support groups" found Ten Days to Self-esteem : leader's manual  by David D. Burns, and Teamworks! : building support groups that guarantee success by Barbara Sher and Annie Gottlieb, both on the shelf, and which she thought would do very well.

Support groups are so much a part of the culture now that we joke about them, as Al Franken used to do with his Stuart Smalley routines on Saturday Night Live.  But they are a legacy of the Boomer Generation that we can be proud of.  Selfhelpgroups.org cites some impressive findings on the benefits of seeking help in a support group.

I read a novel last year in which a Vietnam Vets support group was a "character", The Names of the Dead, by Stewart O'Nan.  Reader-advisory bulb lights up:  other novels featuring support groups?  Hmmm...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"My years as a medical practitioner, as well as my own first-hand experience, have taught me how important self-help groups are in assisting their members in dealing with problems, stress, hardship and pain... the benefits of mutual aid are experienced by millions of people who turn to others with a similar problem to attempt to deal with their isolation, powerlessness, alienation, and the awful feeling that nobody understands."
- former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD, who also served as a member of a self-help group, Compassionate Friends, an international self-help group for bereaved parents, following the sudden death of his own college age son.

"Mutual support groups, involving little or no cost to participants, have a powerful effect on mental and physical health... The psychological and physical health importance of this diffuse community is striking... The self-help movement, both in face-to-face and virtual arenas, has tremendous therapeutic potential."
from American Psychologist feature article "Who Talks?: The Social Psychology of Illness Support Groups" by K. P. Davison, J. W. Pennebaker, & S.S. Dickerson, (55) 2, pp. 205-217, 2000.

“One of the most important capabilities of community self-help groups is that ordinary people can develop such groups in their local communities when none exist, and subsequently their group usually serves as an extraordinary resource to many in that area for several years. I still find it amazing that to start a group, a person doesn't need a grant, an agency, or even an office - just the inspiration and a few other people who share their experience and hope. What significantly helps in providing such inspiration is a person's knowledge of an existing national organization or a model group, which can provide them with basic information so they don't have to ‘re-invent the wheel.’" - E. Madara, "Mutual Aid Self-Help Group Developments” Community Psychologist, 39 (3), 2006, p. 21.