Strength and support can sometimes be found in numbers when you’re experiencing life challenges.
A self-help group may be a great resource if you’re experiencing difficulties with mental health, lifestyle, or recovery from substance use.
Tackling self-help doesn’t always mean you have to go it alone. A self-help group brings people together who are dealing with similar challenges to help build support and community around shared life experiences.
In a self-help group, you have the option to share your coping strategies, and in turn, others do the same with you.
Sometimes, people can do more together to heal than they could on their own. For instance, if you want to quit smoking, you may find it more beneficial to join a group of others who also want to quit smoking.
Self-help means that you’re taking steps on your own to work toward achieving a goal or making changes in your life rather than working with a therapist.
For instance, if you want to give up a habit you find harmful — like always being late or biting your nails — you may write down the benefits of quitting or create a list of rewards you want to give yourself.
Self-help can guide you in organizing the way you accomplish your goals. In other words, instead of working with a therapist, you might use a workbook or join a support group to guide your own learning and coping.
“Self-help groups are groups of individuals who come together to address a common issue or condition,” explains Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York City.
This is accomplished by mutual support through helping others. You can join a self-help group for many concerns, such as:
- mental health conditions
- grief and loss
- substance use
- weight loss or management
- caregiver support
A self-help group isn’t considered group therapy. Group therapy is often led by a licensed professional, explains Sternlicht, and typically requires you to sign confidentiality agreements to protect the privacy of group members.
Self-help groups, on the other hand, are often run by peers or fellow group members. They don’t act as an authority in the group, and they usually aren’t experts in mental health.
Self-help group sessions are open-ended, meaning there’s no agenda, and meetings are run by the group. People are free to come and go. Usually, there is no limit on how many people participate.
Self-help groups come in different forms and address diverse life experiences and conditions.
There’s no “one size fits all” type of self-help group, and you may have to try several before you find one that best fits your needs.
Though self-help groups may tackle varied subjects, each usually seeks to create a community of mutual support. Examples include:
- Recovery. These groups focus on gaining control of behaviors that may negatively affect your daily life or health, such as substance abuse disorder. Common examples are Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or Twelve Step groups.
- Common challenging situations. Groups based around a shared life challenge, such as divorce or grief, with the goal of reducing stress and anxiety by sharing coping strategies and advice.
- Personal growth. The goal for members of these groups is improving your life through encouragement of growth and shared advice.
- Online groups. Support communities that exist online — either with a designated time to meet and a topic to discuss, or as a virtual forum that runs continuously — led by peers or a mental health professional.
- Groups for family members. These groups provide support and education for loved ones and relatives of people experiencing difficult health or life circumstances, such as Al-Alon.
Meeting with others coping with relatable life experiences can be constructive for some people.
According to Sternlicht, there are many positive aspects of support groups that may be beneficial for those interested in self-help:
- Mutual support. Connecting with others can help you feel supported and less isolated when experiencing life challenges.
- Network building. Building a support network with others who share a common goal or life experience may help you stay on track and connected to relatable people.
- Increased self-esteem. You may feel more empowered from making positive life changes and supporting others to do the same, which could raise your self-esteem.
- Instilling hope. Seeing others’ growth may help you feel more hopeful about your own situation.
Self-help groups might be a good idea if you think that support from others could help you understand your circumstances and help you focus on a solution.
It may be beneficial to talk with others who have gone through similar life situations or challenges. Self-help groups might provide information from a direct source while also connecting people.
For example, if you’re dealing with a difficult life circumstance — such as a job loss or health condition diagnosis — you may find joining a self-help or support group helpful for gathering first-hand information on how others are coping.
According to Sternlicht, certain factors could make self-help groups more appropriate for people who are:
- already in therapy or have completed therapy
- stable in their recovery from a mental health condition or substance use disorder
If you’re early in your recovery from a substance use disorder or mental health condition, it may be best to attend both self-help groups and therapy at the same time.
Self-help groups could be a great fit for people who want to focus on making changes in their life, but don’t necessarily want to do it alone or work solely with a therapist.
For some, self-help groups can provide mutual support to connect with others experiencing similar life situations or challenges.
Participating in self-help groups is different than attending group therapy.
There are many kinds of self-help groups created for diverse reasons, ranging from personal growth to substance use recovery.
If you’re considering a self-help group, you can visit Mental Health America for resources on finding support groups.
You can also use the American Psychologist Association’s therapist locator tool.
It may be helpful to check out different groups in your area or online to see if one is a better fit than the others based on your needs.