Self-help Groups: What Is Their Use?

Self-help groups, also known as mutual aid groups, are support networks that are formed to overcome a problem common to their members. Currently there are many types and they work practically all over the world.

The first reference to self-help groups dates from 1905  at the Massachusetts General Hospital, located in Boston (USA). Their creator, Dr. JH Pratt, called them Didactic Groups. Its aim was to inform tuberculosis patients in detail about the best way to cope with their disease.

Later appeared Alcoholics Anonymous , perhaps the most famous self-help group in the world. In this, more than information, what was intended was to create a space of mutual support for those who were addicted to alcohol. In fact, it remains one of the most effective methods for that purpose.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference .”

-Serenity prayer, AA-

The Basic Principles of Self-Help Groups

As we have said, self-help groups are a support system for their members. They help their members  cope  with difficult, stressful or sick situations. They give rise to communities united by the same suffering or problem and the same desire to support and be supported.

The basic principles of these groups are:

  • Reciprocity.
  • All members share a common experience.
  • Each member has a purpose for change and is willing to support others to do so as well.
  • The self-help group is managed autonomously. It is the members who decide its management.
  • The group exercises social control over its members to facilitate and promote change.
  • The change should be reflected inside and outside the group sessions.
  • They offer information, guidance and guidance to tackle the common problem.

What is intended with self-help groups is to build a space that welcomes, motivates and provides feedback to those who wish to overcome a difficulty. This approach is complemented by individual therapies on many occasions.

What is the effectiveness of self-help groups?

Self-help groups incorporate a number of mechanisms that have proven to be very effective. The first of these is, of course, the essence of the group itself: mutual support. This factor is decisive in many cases. The person feels stronger when they have the support of a whole group. This makes it easy to change.

Other elements that contribute to these groups being effective are:

  • The verbalization of discomfort. Talking about what ails or hurts produces at least two effects. The first, that the person has the opportunity to make their feelings and ideas more aware, since they must organize them to communicate them to others. The second, that it frees itself of a good part of the weight that implies silencing what worries you. It is what is called catharsis
  • Identification effect. Identification allows you to create affective bonds with other human beings. By recognizing the other as a fellow man, a great step is taken in the recomposition of the affective and social world. Self-help groups promote that identification
  • Interpersonal learning. Through self-help groups, some learn from the experience of others. They have the same problem in common. The way they have lived and approached it provides information and knowledge for others

The group also becomes a controlling factor for its members. This is very important, for example, in addictions. In this case, the community helps to understand the compulsive desire and to channel it in another direction.

The benefits of these groups

Many difficulties such as addictions or certain emotional and psychological problems lead to segregation. This happens even within the same family. The problem is so unknown or so difficult to address for those around the person in distress that they ultimately decide to put it aside.

In principle, self-help groups provide an accepting and welcoming environment. They serve as a transition between a state of estrangement and the process of reintegration. Likewise, the experience of being with people who have similar problems can positively affect self-esteem. In those spaces no one is “weird”. This strengthens the identity.

In the same way, the achievements of others become a motivation to keep going. Many find there people who are worse off than their own and still overcome their problems. They also find a frame of reference to know how to act and clear their doubts and fears. Self-help groups are highly effective for many people.

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