Why does joining a self-help group work?

No trace of cramped people in the circle of chairs - How self-help groups can relieve you

Larissa, 28 years old, is a social worker and took her first professional steps in the clinical, psychiatric field a little more than 10 years ago: Starting with voluntary work in social psychiatric centers, through a FSJ in a child and adolescent psychiatry, temporary work in closed departments of Psychiatry, through internships in dormitories for people with addictions, to social services in a large psychiatry where she was allowed to work with people with mental illnesses.

Tense people in chair circles

What are the first thoughts and associations that people think of when they think of support groups? What were my initial ideas about these? Tense people in chair circles, which are enveloped in an embarrassing silence? Or is it a pleasant atmosphere with a good, intensive and healing exchange? What do we really know about the structures, processes and the organization of these meetings? Especially if we never had any points of contact with them in advance?

I had the experience of realizing that self-help groups represent much more than my very limited, prejudiced ideas had to offer or what I knew from films and I was pleasantly surprised in every respect.

How I got to know the concept of self-help

In all of my professional activities in a wide variety of settings and with a wide variety of clients, I have come across two topics time and again: depression and self-help. Sometimes they appeared independently of one another, but mostly they were closely related.

For me these two topics can hardly be separated from each other. During my studies, however, I never had the chance to deal more closely with the subject of self-help or self-help groups, or to be active in this area. It was usually only touched on briefly in the lectures and scripts.

However, my interest was aroused by the contact with some people about this topic in the professional as well as in the private environment, so that I decided to deal with it in more detail in the course of my bachelor thesis. In this context, I was able to attend a wide variety of groups and talked to many people about what exactly they get from these meetings and how they can help and support.

I myself was very positively surprised at how many different forms of self-help exist, how they are an integral part of everyday life for how many (in addition to depression) and especially about the extent of hearty and exuberant laughter during the meetings and how much you can work up a sweat when the expected circle of seats suddenly turns into a jogging excursion together.

How self-help groups can make a difference

In my later job as a social worker, part of my job was to prepare for the discharge of patients from the psychiatric clinic. If there was interest and motivation, I made sure, among other things, that contact was made with suitable forms of self-help. I think joining a self-help group is particularly useful after inpatient or partial inpatient treatment and I am convinced that they can function as extremely gentle and at the same time very stable safety nets.

Of course, these groups are not a substitute for psychotherapy - or, depending on the extent of the illness, an inpatient stay - but they can definitely contribute to stabilization, increased well-being and recovery. I think it can be a great relief to have the feeling of having a certain problem or, in the case of depression, a disease.

I, too, know the feeling that I feel more understood or that I can open myself up to certain topics better to a person when I know that they may have had similar experiences. Also, the feeling of problem solving in a community can create a lot of courage and confidence. Supporting, comforting, advising, listening and strengthening one another, as well as coping with and sharing social challenges, dependencies, worries about relatives or friends, physical and mental illnesses, that is what these groups are all about.

Against loneliness

The subject of depression is often accompanied by loneliness, a lack of everyday or active leisure activities, the lack of social contacts or the feeling of “I'm alone with my problem!”. A weekly meeting can counteract this.

Friendships can be formed and a social network can be built up, which can counteract the feeling of loneliness in a positive way. And joint activities fill and enliven everyday life, which is often empty or seemingly meaningless.

In addition to these inpatient self-help groups, there are also the better-known and more widespread discussion self-help groups. You don't live together here, but meet at regular intervals to exchange ideas. Here, too, there is a strong focus on common leisure activities and you can often choose between different age groups.

Watched, copied, implemented

I was also impressed to see how excellently the principle of observation and model learning comes to the fore here. Positive behavior patterns can be copied in the group and people can be taken as role models.

People who have been in a self-help group for a long time show that it is possible to appear regularly and to find the strength and energy to do so. In this way you can become a role model for newer members.

The individual participants can gain self-knowledge in the group and group members can convey and motivate each other to learn new things about life. The principle of the shelter also counts. So you can speak openly, open yourself in a way that you might not do in front of family or friends.

Because you are among like-minded people, many people I have spoken to have reported a feeling of not having to pretend or adapt. You get acceptance and understanding. In addition, there is a good chance that by sharing even small experiences of success in everyday life, self-esteem can be increased.

Experience enrichment and relief - or at least get a cup of coffee

I am aware that people suffering from depression often lack the drive to do new things. And understandably the first step into a completely unknown group is also associated with fear and excitement. In fact, I have never heard of reports of a difficult or cold “welcome”.

Every single person in the self-help group walked through the door for the first time at some point, introduced themselves and knows how much motivation and energy this can cost. All participants know the feeling, can actually relate to it and for this reason, among other things, behave particularly openly and warmly towards new prospects.

I very much hope that my contribution will perhaps encourage one or the other person to get a taste of the world of self-help groups. Perhaps there is a trusted person who can come with you at the beginning, or who can help with a call in advance to obtain information. In any case, I am sure that it can be a great enrichment and relief, or support!

As you can probably easily see, personally I am a huge fan of support groups and I firmly believe that it is definitely worth a try. And when you realize that it doesn't suit you at all, there is usually at least free coffee.

You can find out more at Nakos - the national contact and information center for self-help groups offers an overview of Germany-wide offers.