Self-help has been documented to be cost effective, life-prolonging and helpful. Yet a lack of information about the benefits of the groups and how to access them prevents people from attending self-help groups.
One in five people suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, yet only one person in 28 receives treatment and services, according to the National Mental Health Association. Consumer Reports (November 1995) endorsed self-help groups as “real help” for mental health problems. They also reported “Most people who went to a self-help group were very satisfied with the experience and said that they got better.” (p.734).
Recent studies have established a link between poor social relationships and poor health. Being part of a loving community, such as that offered by a support group, prolongs and even saves lives (Shaffer et al 1995). Ornish, a California specialist in coronary heart disease, was surprised to find that support groups helped his heart patients more than improving their diets or exercise plans (Shaffer et al 1995:65). Support groups are communities of caring individuals who understand and therefore can really support each other in their common problem.
With public and private resources for medical and mental health care strained, supplements to professional care must be sought. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General, said “Mending people, curing them is no longer enough; it is only part of the total health care that most people require… I believe in self-help as an effective way of dealing with problems, stress, hardship and pain.” (US Dept. HHS 1987)
Areta Crowell, former Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, stressed to the Los Angeles Times “the need to reach people in their communities, before a crisis lands them in the hospital. We’re working with people who need to take charge as much as possible of their own destiny.” Improving support group attendance can help consumers take personal responsibility for their health and prevent such crises.
Self-help support groups offer early intervention for a multitude of serious health concerns which can become much more difficult–and costlier–to treat later on. People who use self-help groups to change unhealthy behavior have a higher rate of success than those who do not attend support groups (e.g. Jason et al 1987). In addition, self-help groups make it easier for people to deal with an issue they may be ashamed of. People can attend anonymous self-help groups when a problem first arises, without fear of having it on their record or of losing face with family, friends or employers.
Despite the clear benefits of self-help support groups, relatively few people actually use the groups. The California Department of Mental Health Office of Prevention found that although 75 percent of those queried felt that support groups were a good idea, only nine percent had attended one (Gartner et al 1984:17). With the possible exception of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded more than 60 years ago and is reasonably well-known, the vast majority of self-help, mutual aid groups are not well publicized and information about them is difficult to come by.
There is tremendous need for up-to-date and accurate information about self-help groups, yet the groups themselves cannot get the word out. Self-help groups, by their volunteer nature, do not have the resources to let the greater public know about their meetings.
A typical donation at a self-help meeting is a dollar. There is no money available for paid advertising, and free advertising requires time and a level of sophistication. Self-help group leadership, often by design, is transitory and therefore unable to mount the necessary public relations campaigns to reach newcomers. In addition, the 12-Step programs are philosophically opposed to active programs of outreach, preferring word-of-mouth advertising to promotion. Support groups need help in letting people know about their valuable services.
Because people in self-help groups come together around common problems, there is a remarkable degree of egalitarianism in support groups, even among people from diverse backgrounds, economic statuses, racial and ethnic groups. Support groups create communities which transcend the usual societal divisions. Attendees learn to accept people from different social, racial and ethnic backgrounds because the shared feelings and understanding of their common problems dwarf the importance of their differences. Nonetheless as most self-help groups rely on word of mouth to get new members, the existence of self-help groups is not well known in diverse and minority communities.
Members tend to invite people like themselves, thus minorities and those who have not traditionally participated in self-help groups are underrepresented. African-Americans are less than one-third as likely to attend self-help groups as whites (Snowden et al 1994:57). Lieberman found that self-help group use for mental health problems was predominately a white, middle-class phenomenon (1994:45). While other factors may play a role in this under-representation, the central referral service offered by SHARE! removes some of the barriers to African-Americans and other minorities finding the same support others do in self-help groups. Word-of-mouth referrals also exclude people who are socially isolated in the community, who can particularly benefit from self-help.
SHARE! the Self-Help And Recovery Exchange, addresses the need for better access to self-help by offering the only comprehensive self-help support group referral service in Los Angeles County. This free service matches people with the best support group dealing with their issues. The database comprises 10,000 groups that address more than 350 concerns. Most of the support groups are donation only. A typical donation is $1 to $5, but no one is turned away for lack of funds. Call 1-877-SHARE-49 for a referral.
To read more about scientific research on self-help groups, see, “Research on Self-Help and Mutual Aid Support Groups” by Elaina M. Kyrouz, Ph.D. and Keith Humphreys, Ph.D. http://psychcentral.com/library/support_groups.htm