What are support groups?

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The history of support groups in modern times begins with the formation of the Oxford Group in 1908 and the subsequent development of Alcoholics Anonymous. For the participants, support groups reduce feelings of isolation, offer information, instill hope, provide feedback and social support, and teach new social skills. In the early twenty-first century, support groups exist for persons suffering from all kinds of medical and psychological conditions and for victims of violent crime.
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Humans are social animals in that they live in groups. These networks among people are powerful in shaping behavior, feelings, and judgments. Groups can lead to destructive behavior, such as mob violence and aggression, but they can also encourage loyalty, nurturing of others, and achievement, as found in cancer-support groups. Scientific investigation of how groups affect human behavior began as early as 1898, but the main body of research on group functioning began only in the 1940s and 1950s. The study of groups is still a major topic of scientific enquiry.

D. R. Forsyth defined a group as “two or more individuals who influence each other through social interaction.” A group may be permanent or temporary, formal or informal, structured or unstructured. Those groups known as support groups may share any of these characteristics.

Why do human beings seek out groups? Social learning theorists believe that humans learn to depend on other people because most are raised within families, where they learn to look to other people for support, validation, amusement, and advice. Exchange theorists, on the other hand, reason that groups provide both rewards (such as love and approval) and costs (such as time and effort). Membership in a group will “profit” the individual if the rewards are greater than the costs. Yet another set of theorists, the sociobiologists, argue that humans form groups because this has a survival benefit for the species. They hypothesize a genetic predisposition toward affiliation with others. It is within groups that the fittest have the greatest chance of survival.

Whatever the reason for forming groups, all groups have important characteristics that must be addressed in seeking to understand why support groups work. First of all, group size is important. Larger groups allow more anonymity, while smaller groups facilitate communication, for example. Group structure includes such elements as status differences, norms of conduct, leaders and followers, and subgroups. Individuals in groups develop social roles—those expected behaviors associated with the individual’s position within the group. Roles are powerful in influencing behavior and can even cause individuals to act contrary to their private feelings or their own interests. These roles carry varying degrees of status within the group—who is influential and respected and who is less so. Groups may have subgroups, based on age, residence, roles, interests, or other factors. These subgroups may contribute to the success of the whole or may become cliquish and undermine the main group’s effectiveness.

Groups also have varying degrees of cohesion. Cohesion reflects the strength of attachments within the group. Sometimes cohesion is a factor of how well group members like one another, sometimes a factor of the need to achieve an important goal, and sometimes a factor of the rewards that group membership confers. All groups have communication networks, or patterns of openness and restrictions on communication among members.

Group norms are those attitudes and behaviors that are expected of members. These norms are needed for the group’s success because they make life more predictable and efficient for the members. Leadership may be formal or informal, may be task oriented or people oriented, and may change over time. Finally, all groups go through fairly predictable stages as they form, do their work, and conclude. The comprehensive term for the way a group functions is group dynamics .

How Groups Influence Individuals

Researchers have found that for all animals, including human beings, the mere presence of other members of the same species may enhance performance on individual tasks. This phenomenon is known as social facilitation. However, with more complex tasks the presence of others may decrease performance. This is known as social inhibition or impairment. It is not clear whether this occurs because the presence of others arouses the individual, leads individuals to expect rewards or punishments based on past experience, makes people self-conscious, creates challenges to self-image, or affects the individual’s ability to process information. Most theorists agree that the nature of the task is important in the success of a group. For example, the group is more likely to succeed if the individual members’ welfare is closely tied to the task of the group.

Groups provide modeling of behavior deemed appropriate in a given situation. The more similar the individuals doing the modeling are to the individual who wants to learn a behavior, the more powerful the models are. Groups reward members for behavior that conforms to group norms or standards and punish behaviors that do not conform. Groups provide a means of social comparison—how one’s own behavior compares to others’ in a similar situation. Groups are valuable sources of support during times of stress. Some specific factors that enhance the ability of groups to help individuals reduce stress are attachment, guidance, tangible assistance, and embeddedness. Attachment has to do with caring and attention among group members. Guidance may be provision of information or it may be advice and feedback provided by the group to its members. Tangible assistance may take the form of money or of other kinds of service. Embeddedness refers to the sense the individual has of belonging to the group. Some researchers have shown that a strong support system actually increases the body’s immune functioning.

Alcoholics Anonymous

The most well-known support group is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), formed in Akron, Ohio, in the late 1930s. AA groups now number in the tens of thousands and are found across the globe. What is less well known is that AA is an outgrowth of the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian student and athlete group formed at Oxford University in England in 1908. The Oxford Group’s ideals of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others directly influenced the steps to recovery practiced by members of AA and other so-called twelve-step groups, including Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, and Smokers Anonymous.

For addicts, support groups are important for a number of reasons. They provide peer support for the effort to become “clean and sober.” They provide peer pressure against relapsing into substance use. They assure addicts that they are not alone—that others have suffered the destruction brought about by drinking or drug use. Addicts in twelve-step groups learn to interact with others on an emotional level. Importantly, members of AA and other support groups for addicts are able to confront the individual’s maladaptive behaviors and provide models for more functional behavior. The norm for AA is sobriety, and sobriety is reinforced by clear directions on how to live as a sober person. Another important aspect of AA is the hope that it is able to inspire in persons who, while using, saw no hope for the future. This hope comes not only from seeing individuals who have successfully learned to live as sober persons but also from the group’s emphasis on dependence on a higher power and the importance of a spiritual life.

Other Support Groups

Not all support groups are for addicts. Support groups exist for family and friends of addicts as well as for adoptive parents, children who have been adopted, persons with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), caregivers for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, amputees—and that is just the beginning. Why are these groups so popular? Some writers believe that Americans have turned away from the “rugged individualism” that has characterized the national psyche in the past and are searching for meaning in groups to replace the extended families found in other societies. However, this does not explain why support groups are also popular in other parts of the world. The answer probably lies in the characteristics of groups.

Support groups are generally composed of small numbers of people who are facing similar challenges in their lives. They meet, with or without a trained facilitator, to explore their reactions, problems, solutions, feelings, frustrations, successes, and needs in relation to those challenges. They build bonds of trust. Members show compassion for one another. Groups may provide material support or simply assure the individual member he or she is not alone. They help minimize stress and maximize coping. They model strategies for dealing with the given challenge. They provide information. They nurture their members. They encourage application of new learning. Through this sharing, each member grows, and through individual growth, the group matures.

Support groups have traditionally met in person, but the Internet has altered this expectation. Many support groups now meet online. These may take the form of synchronous or asynchronous chat groups, bulletin boards, Web sites with multiple links to information sources, referrals, and collaboration with professionals. These groups, while not well studied, seem to serve the same purposes as in-person groups. In addition, they provide a possible advantage: The anonymity of the Web makes it possible to observe and to learn from observing without actually participating until one is comfortable doing so.

Support groups may not be sufficient in and of themselves to solve individual problems. They are probably most effective as a part of an integrated plan for addressing the challenge in the individual’s life that involves other resources as appropriate. For example, the caregiver of a person with Alzheimer’s disease may also need social services support, adult daycare or respite care facilities, medical assistance for control of problem behaviors, and home health services to deal successfully with the day-to-day challenges of caring for the patient. The support group can facilitate access to these other resources in addition to serving as an important stress reducer and support system for the caregiver.


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