What Is a Support Group?

Finding support when you need it

A support group, or social support group, is a group of people who are led by a professional and come together with a goal of overcoming or coping with a shared problem. With the leadership of the professional, they share help, comfort, encouragement, advice, and guidance to face their challenges together.

The leader of the group is generally someone who is not struggling with the problem faced by the members of the support group and is specifically trained to provide support to them. This is what sets a support group apart from a self-help group, which is a group that comes together to face challenges without a professional leader.

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Support Group vs. Self-Help Group

The primary difference between a support group and a self-help group is that a support group is organized and facilitated by a professional or agency. A self-help group, on the other hand, is more peer-led by a group of members. A well-known example of a self-help group is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Another difference between the two is that support groups are generally structured with a set number of sessions, and there is often a fee to join. Many self-help groups are free to join and do not have a set end date. Both types of groups are beneficial in providing community and help to members, and the better option depends on the specific needs of the individual seeking a group.

Challenges Addressed

Support groups can be formed to address any challenge, including physical health conditions, mental health conditions, and life situations. They are common in helping people with mental health issues, and the mental and emotional side of physical health issues. There are also support groups for life transitions and other hardships. There are support groups for adults, teens, and even children, or children and adults together.

Support groups are generally characterized by the issues they focus on and the people they support. For example, there may be a support group for parents of cancer patients and another support group for children with cancer. There may be a support group for teens struggling with eating disorders and their parents, or for women facing infertility.

Other support groups may focus on life challenges such as grief from loss or life transitions such as starting a new career or the postpartum phase of motherhood. The focus may be broad, such as anxiety, or narrow, such as anxiety while traveling with a disability. Regardless of the focus or population, support groups help members who have something in common.

Examples of Support Group Focus Areas

  • Addiction
  • Alcoholism
  • Anxiety
  • Cancer treatment
  • Caregiving
  • Career transition
  • Child abuse recovery
  • Chronic illness
  • Depression
  • Disabilities
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Domestic violence victims
  • Eating disorders
  • Geographic relocation
  • Grief or loss
  • Infertility
  • Injury recovery
  • Parents of special needs children
  • Pregnancy or postpartum
  • Religious oppression
  • Retirement
  • Sexual abuse recovery
  • Specific mental health condition
  • Specific physical health condition
  • Traumatic event recovery
  • Weight loss

Types

In addition to the different challenges addressed by support groups and the people they serve, there are other differences among them. Support groups may differ in how they meet, how they are structured or offer support, and what the members do in the sessions.

Meetings and Communication

Support groups may meet in person or online using video meeting platforms. In-person meetings may take place in hospitals, clinics, treatment centers, offices of organizations, or community centers, while online meetings may be accessed from any location through the Internet.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and each option may limit access for different groups of people. Those with social anxiety, physical disability, chronic illness, or transportation limitations may prefer to meet online, for example, while those uncomfortable with technology or without Internet access may prefer in-person options. Online meetings may be less personal, and in-person meetings may be less convenient.

The ideal meeting setting, online or in-person, depends on the preferences and needs of the members of the group.

Type of Support and Content

The type of support offered by a support group and the content available depends on the support group and its professional leader.

The content is generally somewhat structured and may be a specific program. Leaders may teach skills or provide information about coping. Guest experts may be brought in to talk about specific topics relevant to the members and their challenges. There is often an opportunity to connect, ask questions, and share experiences as a group.

How to Prepare

Preparing for a support group starts with choosing a support group. Doctors, clinics, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, and health websites can suggest support groups and provide information about them.

It is important to ask questions before joining. For example:

  • Is there a fee?
  • Who is supported by the group?
  • What are the rules?
  • What time do we meet?
  • Where is the meeting located?
  • What do I need to do to commit to the group? Can I attend only as needed?
  • Who is the group leader?
  • What should I expect at meetings?

Once these questions are answered, it will be more clear how to prepare for the first meeting. It can also be helpful to set some goals or intentions before starting and to make notes of any observations or thoughts.

Benefits and Outcomes

The benefits of social support groups go beyond the structured content provided by leaders and information provided by experts. Support groups incorporate structured social support to members with common challenges or circumstances, and social support has been shown to improve physical health, mental health, and the ability to cope with stressors.

The combination of professional support and member support helps members to more easily overcome and better cope with their shared challenges.

A Word From Verywell

Facing any type of physical health, mental health, or life challenge can be hard. This is especially true when feeling alone or like you're the only one in that situation. If you are facing something challenging in your life and feel alone, overwhelmed, or under-supported, you may benefit from a social support group.

It can be especially helpful to have the support of others who share the same or similar challenges, along with the support of a trained professional.

This option does not take the place of doctors or other physical health or mental health professionals. It can, however, help to improve your health and well-being along with other treatments provided by your healthcare team.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Support group.

  2. Mayo Clinic. Support groups: Make connections, get help. Updated August 29, 2020.

  3. American Addiction Centers. Pros and cons of online support groups. Updated February 11, 2019.

  4. Wright K. Communication in health-related online social support groups/communities: A review of research on predictors of participation, applications of social support theory, and health outcomesRCR. 2016;4:65-87. doi:10.12840/issn.2255-4165.2016.04.01.010