The Benefits of Support Groups

In an article describing support groups, the Mayo Clinic reports that most organizations are made up of peers who come together to support one another, and that no mental health professional is in charge of the work that goes on in these meetings. As a result, few professionals consider support group participation a form of therapy for a mental health issue. Reading through an article like this might make some people wonder why they should bother attending support group meetings. If the work isn’t therapy, is it even worth doing in the first place?

Most experts would say that support groups could be beneficial to people with chronic conditions like addiction and mental illness. In fact, these experts might suggest that support groups work to fill in the gaps left behind in treatment programs. Those who participate in support groups, these experts might suggest, could reap benefits they might struggle to find via any other medium.

The Support Group Model

the support group modelAs mentioned, support group meetings aren’t typically run by a therapist or a mental health professional. There are no formal records of participation kept, and no progress notes are given to an insurance company or a doctor. Additionally, in most cases, participation is completely voluntary. People can choose the meetings they like and they can go whenever they’d like to go. They can also choose an appropriate level of commitment to the support group. Some augment their meetings by doing homework, meeting with peers on off hours or scheduling vacations with other members of the group. Others just stick to meetings and leave the rest of the lifestyle alone.

While there are dozens and dozens of different types of support groups, the type best known in popular culture is the 12-step model.

12-step programsAlcoholics Anonymous was the first group to pick up this model, and according to an article produced by Scientific American, about 2 million people participate in this program, and about half of those people live in the United States. It’s safe to say that millions more participate in spinoff programs such as Narcotics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous, and that millions others use other support group programs such as LifeRing.

Support groups tend to publicize their meeting times online or in local newspapers, and they also tend to produce lists of meeting times that can be shared with addiction treatment professionals. As a result, many people become aware of the support groups in their area when they’ve completed their addiction treatment programs. These people might be told that the support groups are vital to their long-term recovery, and they might be encouraged to attend. Some might even be motivated to attend, no matter what their therapists might tell them to do.

Extending Sobriety

After an addiction treatment program is complete, people are often encouraged to attend support group meetings because this participation has been associated with long-term sobriety. For example, in a study in the journal Substance Use and Misuse, researchers found that 73 percent of those who attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly were sober six months later, while only 33 percent of those who didn’t attend could say the same. Just going to meetings seemed to help people resist the urge to relapse.

It’s not clear why meetings have the capability to help people resist relapse, but it’s possible that participation helps by:

  • Improving education, so people can see the dangers inherent in addiction
  • Providing inspiration, allowing people to pick up new relapse prevention strategies
  • Decreasing isolation, allowing people to feel as though relapsing might hurt other people
  • Filling up time, so people have fewer opportunities to use

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that participation really can help people to make a long-term recovery from an addiction, and perhaps keep a dangerous relapse at bay.

Finding Community

finding communityWhile sobriety might be the top reason people cite when asked about their support group participation, a sense of belonging and community remains an important motivating factor for some people. Their addictions may have left them feeling adrift and isolated, as though no one could understand their histories or forgive them for the poor decisions they made, and they may have found the therapeutic community in rehab to be useful and helpful in this regard.

As they walked the halls of the treatment facility, they met other people who also had addictions and who also struggled with loss and defeat. Leaving that community behind can be difficult, and a support group might help. Here, people also have access to an informal network of peers who understand and care. It might make all the difference to a person in need. In meetings, they can discuss their issues openly, and they’ll know they’re taking to a group who really understands.

Improving Mental Health

Some support groups provide people with task lists, asking them to:

  • Make amends to those wronged by the addiction
  • Talk to others about addiction
  • Develop a connection to the divine
  • Give back to the community

These steps can give people a sense of purpose, as though they’re making great strides and really helping the people around them. The steps allow them to focus on something other than their own shortcomings and their own pain, moving them from looking inward to looking out and helping others. It’s possible that this aspect of support group participation allows people to experience an increased sense of self-worth and mental health.

In a study of the issue, published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, researchers found that people who participated in Narcotics Anonymous for three years or longer had levels of anxiety and self-esteem similar to those who had never been addicted. The researchers suggest that high self-esteem is just associated with participation in a support group. That could be something that almost anyone in recovery might need.

Constant Help

Support groups also have a hidden benefit for people who participate, according to an article in the journal Alcohol Research and Health. Here, the authors suggest that most relapse events take place in the evening or on weekends, when mental health professionals might be off the clock and help might be hard to come by. Support groups often hold meetings during these times, allowing people to find a meeting and get help right when they need it. Some support groups even link members with one another, allowing people in need to call for help from another understanding member. Online support groups are also available to help each other stay sober, together. These alliances could help people to ride out a craving and get help on the spot, right when it’s needed most.

Getting Started

In most cases, people will gain exposure to the support group model by their addiction treatment teams. However, if you’d like to find out more about how these programs typically work and how the ideas and ideals of support groups might be blended into a traditional treatment program for addiction, please call us. We’re happy to talk this issue over with you and answer any questions you might have.