What is a Self-Help Group?
There are numerous twelve-step groups modeled after AA, including Adult Children of Alcoholics, Al-Anon, Alateen, Cocaine Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Divorce Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Neurotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Workaholics Anonymous. Families Anonymous is a fellowship of relatives and friends of people involved in the abuse of mind-altering substances. These “anonymous” groups help their members to recover from their various addictive behaviors while maintaining member confidentiality. This confidentiality extends to not recognizing members as members when they meet outside meetings. Most groups are self-supporting, do not have dues, and decline all outside support to maintain their independence; they do not engage in any controversy, and they neither endorse nor oppose any cause.
Increasingly, there are groups that work toward recovery from addictions but reject certain tenets of twelve-step programs. Charlotte Davis Kasl (1992) has written about the need to fashion different models for recovery for people with different needs. For example, Rational Recovery Systems (affiliated with the American Humanist Association) and Secular Organization for Sobriety both reject AA’s emphasis on spirituality.
Several self-help groups that specifically work with families are Parents Anonymous (for family members, to combat child abuse and neglect), Al-Anon (for relatives and friends of persons with alcoholism), and Alateen (for teenage relatives of persons with alcoholism).
Parents Anonymous (PA), founded in 1971 by “Jolly K.” and Leonard Lieber (Borman 1979), assures anonymity but is not a twelve-step group. There is no religious commitment. Members provide suggestions and referrals to each other and may work toward solving problems together. PA is the oldest and only national parent self-help program with specialized groups for children. Approximately 15,000 parents and 9,200 children participate in its support groups in the United States each week. There are specialized groups in various states—for example, groups for homeless families. In several states there are groups for grandparents and grandchildren. Weekly meetings are representative of the communities in which they are held (Parents Anonymous 1993).
Al-Anon and Alateen, twelve-step groups affiliated with AA, welcome and give comfort to families of persons with alcoholism and give understanding and encouragement to the person with alcoholism. Meetings are held weekly. “The Al-Anon Family Groups are a fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who share their experience, strength and hope in order to solve their common problems,” believing that “alcoholism is a family illness and that changed attitudes can aid recovery” (Al-Anon 1981).
Support and Information Groups
Another type of self-help group focuses on medical diseases or problems. Examples of such groups that help families include AFTER AIDS (for people who have lost a loved one to AIDS), Candlelighters (for parents of young children with cancer), Make Today Count (for persons with cancer and their families), Mended Hearts, Inc. (for persons recovering from heart surgery, and their family and friends), the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (for families and friends of persons with serious mental illness), National Federation of the Blind (for blind persons and their families), and National Society for Children and Adults with Autism (for children with autism and their families).
The Compassionate Friends (for bereaved parents), Parents Without Partners (for single parents and their children), and Tough Love (providing support and mutual problem solving for parents troubled by teenage behavior) are examples of other types of family-oriented groups.
Many of these organizations have other services in addition to self-help groups, such as information and referral, advocacy and lobbying, grant funding, research support, and practical assistance (e.g., providing hospital beds for home care).
Leonard D. Borman (1992, p. xxv) has written that “the underlying mechanism” of the self-help group is love, “a selfless caring.” However, dangers that the self-help “movement” must guard against include dependence, victim-blaming, antiprofessionalism, further medicalization, and co-optation by the medical system.
Nevertheless, Victor W. Sidel and Ruth Sidel (1976, p. 67) have called self-help groups “the grassroots answer to our hierarchical, professionalized society,” to its alienation and depersonalization.
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