Self-help groups, also known as mutual help, mutual aid, or support groups, are groups of people who provide mutual support for each other. In a self-help group, the members share a common problem, often a common disease or addiction. Their mutual goal is to help each other to deal with, if possible to heal or to recover from, this problem. While Michael K. Bartalos (1992) has pointed out the contradictory nature of the terms “self-help” and “support,” the former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop has said that self-help brings together two central but disparate themes of American culture, individualism and cooperation (“Sharing Solutions” 1992).

In traditional society, family and friends provided social support. In modern industrial society, however, family and community ties are often disrupted due to mobility and other social changes. Thus, people often choose to join with others who share mutual interests and concerns. In 1992, almost one in three Americans reported involvement in a support group; more than half of these were Bible study groups (“According to a Gallup Poll” 1992). Of those not involved in a self-help group at the time, more than 10 percent reported past involvement, while another 10 percent desired future involvement. It has been estimated that there are at least 500,000 to 750,000 groups with 10 million to 15 million participants in the United States (Katz 1993) and that more than thirty self-help centers and information clearinghouses have been established (Borman 1992).

Basic Self-Help Group Models

Self-help groups may exist separately or as part of larger organizations. They may operate informally or according to a format or program. The groups usually meet locally, in members’ homes or in community rooms in schools, churches, or other centers.

In self-help groups, specific modes of social support emerge. Through self-disclosure, members share their stories, stresses, feelings, issues, and recoveries. They learn that they are not alone; they are not the only ones facing the problem. This lessens the isolation that many people, especially those with disabilities, experience. Physical contact may or may not be part of the program; in many support groups, members informally hug each other.

Using the “professional expert” model, many groups have professionals serve as leaders or provide supplementary resources (Gartner and Riessman 1977). Many other groups, using the “peer participatory” model, do not allow professionals to attend meetings unless they share the group problem and attend as members or unless they are invited as speakers (Stewart 1990).

Comparing the self-help peer participatory model with the professional expert model, experiential knowledge is more important than objective, specialized knowledge in the peer model. Services are free and reciprocal rather than commodities. Equality among peers, rather than provider and recipient roles, is practiced. Information and knowledge are open and shared rather than protected and controlled.

Peers can model healing for each other. By “the veteran helping the rookie,” the person who has “already ‘been there’” helps the newer member (Mullan 1992). Through peer influence, the newer member is affected (Silverman 1992). Although the newer member learns that the problem can be dealt with and how, the older member who helps also benefits (Riessman 1965).

One possible effect of this peer model is empowerment. Self-help group members are dependent on themselves, each other, the group, perhaps a spiritual power. Together they learn to control the problem in their lives.

Those who share a common shame and stigma can come together, without judging, to provide an “instant identity” and community (Borman 1992). They can give emotional, social, and practical support to each other. They can explore and learn to understand and to combat the shame and stigma together, enhancing their self-esteem and self-efficacy. Through participation, they can enhance their social skills, promoting their social rehabilitation (Katz 1979).

Through “cognitive restructuring” (Katz 1993), members can learn to deal with stress, loss, and personal change (Silverman 1992).