Support groups have many benefits. As Dr Amanda Hu from the University of British Colombia writes, beyond sharing common experiences, they can provide strength to members, raise public awareness, fundraise, educate friends/family, and give emotional and moral support. If you’d like to be involved in providing support, there are several ways to get started.
Join an existing support group
By joining an established group, you’re able to work with like-minded, experienced people. You can provide valuable help without running the entire group on your own and learn what’s needed for peer-to-peer support.
Where to find a group
You may not already know of a group in your area that meets regularly about the subject you’re interested in. Don’t let this put you off. Contacting a relevant charity is an excellent way to find out what’s going on in your area.
For example, large charities like Mind have a page where you can search by postcode for local support groups. They have also published a guide to finding the right support group for you. Macmillan’s website has a similar function and also recommends local charities who operate in your area.
The NHS website is also full of resources for people affected by specific physical and mental well-being issues. There, you can find details of support groups and links to relevant charities.
What are support groups like?
Support groups come in all shapes and sizes. You can find structured meetings, online chat rooms, weekly pub outings… just about anything that brings together the people that need it!
You might even find a support group that fits your niche hobbies and interests. For example, the Alzheimer’s Society lists information about a broad range of groups, including several zoom-based Sporting Memories Clubs across England. These give members the opportunity to chat about their memories of watching and playing sports. Photographs, video clips, quizzes, and memorabilia make frequent appearances to ignite positive memories.
On the other hand, Age UK Cheshire runs informal support groups that provide general companionship to reduce socialisation. Members might meet at the pub, participate in social activities, or go on an outing together. By following the link above, you can navigate to your local Age UK page to find similar activities near you.
How to get involved
1. Volunteer or work with the group
If you’re looking to volunteer, you can give your time to the support group. Many charities ask for a specific weekly or monthly commitment from volunteers. Alternatively, there may be paid positions running groups or handling admin.
2. Go with someone who needs support
You don’t have to create an entire support group yourself in order to support someone. Attending a support group with a friend or loved one will show you’re there for them.
3. Attend the support group yourself
If you’re affected by an issue, you could consider attending a support group yourself. This doesn’t mean that you’re not there for other people too. As the charity Mind says, peer-to-peer support relies on mutual help:
“If you attend a group or share your experience online, you're already a peer supporter. Even if you don't speak up often, your presence counts. In peer support, listening to others is as important as sharing your own experiences.”
Create your own support group
If you can’t find the right support group, you could consider building one yourself. It’s a good idea to get in contact with a local charity even so, as they have expertise in the area and may be able to advise you.
Your support group could be an informal gathering at someone’s house or a large group in a hired room. Either way, it will take time and planning to get everything running smoothly.
We spoke to Stephen Raybould, Programmes Director at Birmingham Voluntary Service Council, who told Age Times: “Starting a support group is a brilliant way of giving back. Some of the best work done in this area is where someone uses their experience of a particular issue to make a space for others - much better than pitching into an area you don’t understand.
"This can be done online or face-to-face and it might be something that can be formally attached to an organisation, or just something you do informally with people who have been through something similar. Really important to understand where you are in relation to what has happened, and to hold the space in a way that leans on your own experience but makes room for people to be different.
"Perhaps talking it over with a local VCSE organisation (charity) is a good place to start. Why don’t you give them a call to see if they will help you think it through?”
To help you generate ideas for your project, consider the following points:
1. What’s your aim?
How and why do you want to support this group of people? Defining your goals will help you focus on the best way to set up your support group without losing focus on what’s important. When considering your aim, you can make a list of the best ways to accomplish each element.
2. Who will be in the group?
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America explains that there is a delicate balance when it comes to who to include. They say:
“You can’t help everyone. The broader the group, the greater effort you will make to help others understand their similarities. And a group that is too narrowly focused…is likely to have difficulty finding enough members to sustain itself.”
You will also need to consider how to promote the support group to this group of people. Where’s the best place to reach them?
3. Who will lead your group?
Some support groups are member lead, while others are led by a trained facilitator. Their skills would come in very useful when handling complex questions or distressing topics. They may be able to supply materials, too.
Alternatively, you might prefer a relaxed atmosphere without placing too much emphasis on the specific issue. However, you will still need someone confident and knowledgeable to run the event.
The Phoenix Society is a charity based in Michigan, US which supports burns survivors. They have a list of essential factors when creating emotional safety in a support group:
- The appropriate responses to feelings
- The practice of unconditional presence (hearing feelings with compassion, empathy, respect, and a lack of judgment)
- A respect for boundaries
4. When and where will it take place?
For local support groups, you will need to consider where people will feel comfortable taking part. If you decide to hire a venue, it's crucial to consider how far funds will stretch and what the health and safety concerns are.
Can’t meet in person for health or geographical reasons? Online support groups can be an effective alternative to in-person meetings. Research as far back as 2008 has found that participating in an online support group could foster personal empowerment, which is needed when handling certain types of distress. The range of online tools and platforms has grown dramatically since then.
Research is key
However you decide to participate in a support group, careful research and planning are key. In 2016, Mind published a comprehensive peer support toolkit that is particularly useful for people who want to launch a new peer support project. But, they also designed the document to be helpful for people who are interested in support groups generally.
For example, the toolkit includes advice on how to establish and implement core group values. It also deals with issues you might face, including upsetting conversations and safeguarding, as well as looking at how your group can improve lives.
For more information on support groups, contact an established charity who can offer advice. If you’d like to find out more about volunteering, have a look at our community pages.