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Over the last two decades, the mental health sectors have witnessed a proliferation of support groups in almost every sphere of mental illness – ranging from alcoholism to bulimia and depression. In 1980 experts suggested that these kind of helping groups were destined to become the foremost method of mental health care in the future1. Recent statistics show that support groups now exist for almost every problem listed by the World Health Organisation2.

A number of theories have been proposed as to why this self-help trend has escalated over the past two decades. The most widely-cited theory is that support groups have emerged as a direct result of the unavailability and inadequacy of health services for the individual3. In essence, many modern-day individuals feel that health services are not up to standard, and have thus decided to create support groups in order to empower themselves.

Surprisingly, mutual aid groups have been traced as far back in history as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However, groups in these times were exclusive in character, with aid only being extended to members of a certain guild or community. Later in European history, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, over 191 societies were developed by residents of London to cope with the social, economic and health problems of an expanding population.

Research indicates that support groups play a vital role in the coping processes of a variety of sufferers. The data from a number of studies indicates that beneficial effects are brought about in self-help groups in such diverse groups as discharged mental patients, parents of premature infants, widows, depression sufferers, drug and food abusers, and sufferers of life-threatening diseases such as

asthma, cancer, arthritis and multiple sclerosis4.

Although the concept of starting a support group may seem daunting at first, all that is required is a venue and a group of interested people who are all battling with a mutual problem. Most support groups remain informal in their approach but there are a few tried and tested rules which, if put into practice, can guarantee the smooth running of any support group.

Firstly, it is important that co-ordinator roles are shared amongst the members of each group. Because all sufferers are experts on their own problems, they also have the necessary knowledge and potential to help in co-ordinating the groups. This encourages everyone to participate in group activity.

Secondly, members should set their own goals for the next scheduled meeting. Personal goal setting provides the basis for the next meeting, but also helps avoid pressure and competition between members. Goal setting is an essential component of support group work and promotes change and healing in members.

Support group sessions should only centre around topics related to the problem or disorder at hand. This keeps the group focused on a shared problem. It is also essential for members to structure their expectations in accordance with the fact that the group is intended to offer mutual support and not therapy.

If needed, support groups can elicit professional help, but should abstain from discussing symptoms, medication and side effects. The group should preferably remain neutral on treatment issues as this promotes an open-minded approach amongst members.

In order to minimise the likelihood of personality clashes, it is best to side-step any personality issues that may emerge. The emotions in these groups should fall on support issues not personality problems. Such an approach also promotes a more diverse membership.

Healthy interpersonal dynamics should be fostered among group members. Communication skills can be taught and used effectively in this regard. One helpful technique is for the members to use “I” statements when communicating their feelings and thoughts in the sessions. This promotes sharing and discourages preaching or mandating. Another useful skill involves members learning how to become active listeners so that they really understand and hear what their fellow group members are trying to say. Members should also not be frightened of silence and learn to respect and acknowledge the healing that may accompany it.

The most important rule in any support group involves confidentiality and trust. Group members must know that what they say in the meeting remains within the confines of the meeting. This sense of confidentiality encourages members to disclose feelings honestly, in a safe, protective environment.

Patty from Newcastle, who has been running a successful anxiety and depression support group for several years, has a few more words of advice: “When you first open your group, sometimes things don’t always run smoothly. It is important to persevere. When members see this, they too will give a lot of themselves and pull their weight.”

One such support group that has achieved remarkable success following this formula is the well co-ordinated and active Depression and Anxiety Support Group. The group has over 75 regional support groups established throughout the country; these smaller groups are run by ex-sufferers and generally meet once a month. Rita, a panic sufferer from Cape Town, felt that joining a support group was the single most important factor in her recovery. “It was amazing to be in contact with other people who knew what it was like,” she says. “For such a long time, I had felt so alone and misunderstood.” If you are interested in joining or opening up a depression or anxiety support group in your area, please contact the Depression and Anxiety Support Group on (011) 783-1474/6 or 0800 11 9283.

Watching your membership grow and strengthen is reward enough for many group facilitators. Denise from a Johannesburg group recalls one such success story concerning a young member in her group: “One member had tried to commit suicide a number of times before joining our depression and anxiety support group. After nine months of participating in our group, she was so much happier and more confident that I barely recognised her”.


1. Tyler (1980) in Dies (1992) The Future of Group Therapy. Psychotherapy, 29 (1), 58-62

2. Nash KB & Kramer KP (1993) Self-help for Sickle Cell disease in African Communities. Journal of Applied Beh Science, 29, 202-215

3. Tracey GS & Gussow Z, (1976) Self-help Groups: a Grassroots Response to a Need for Serving. Journal of Applied Beh-Science, 12 (3), 361-396

4. Katz, Ah (1988) Value of Self-Help Groups in Social Work, 33, 4, 382-383


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