Support groups can be found in big cities, small towns, and even rural areas, dealing with anything from gambling addiction to surviving domestic violence to gender issues. Perhaps the best-known support group is Alcoholics Anonymous. Founded in 1935, AA has provided a safe space for over 2 million people around the world to talk with others like themselves who have struggled with alcoholism. Other well -known support groups built on the AA model include Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous.
Support groups – also often referred to as self-help groups – are groups of people who gather to share common problems and experiences associated with a particular problem, condition, illness, or personal circumstance. In a support group, people are able to talk with other folks who are like themselves – people who truly understand what they’re going through and can share the type of practical insights that can only come from firsthand experience.
Some of the common characteristics of support groups include:
- They are made up of peers – people who are all directly affected by a particular issue, illness, or circumstance
- They usually have a professional or volunteer discussion leader or facilitator
- They tend to be fairly small in size, to better allow everyone a chance to talk
- Attendance is voluntary
Besides serving people directly affected by a problem, support groups often welcome family members or friends of those experiencing illnesses or difficulties. Also, many independent support groups exist just for family members or friends: for example, one such group is Al-Anon, a group for families and friends of alcoholics.
There is no one, universally accepted definition of peer support. Sherry Mead offers the following:
“Peer support is a system of giving and receiving help founded on key principles of respect, shared responsibility, and mutual agreement of what is helpful. Peer support is not based on psychiatric models and diagnostic criteria. It is about understanding another’s situation emphatically through the shared experience of emotional and psychological pain. When people find affiliation with others they feel are ‘like’ them, they feel a connection. This connection, or affiliation, is a deep, holistic understanding based on mutual experience where people are able to ‘be’ with each other without the constraints of traditional (expert/patient) relationships.” (Mead, 2001)
Informal peer support is provided by friends, family and peers. Sharing of lived experience is increasingly recognized as an integral, complementary part of the recovery journey in mental health. Formal recognition has led to increasing numbers of peer support roles and a diverse range of terminology, services, activities, practices, protocols, research and resources. These have been developed by individuals, community and special interest groups, health professionals, government departments and support agencies, all aiming to harness the power of peer support for consumers of mental health services and their families.