A support group is a group of people with common concerns or experiences who provide advice, comfort and encouragement to one other. When it comes to health concerns, support groups are organized to assist people living with a chronic condition in learning about and coping with a disease shared by others in the group. Group members meet at a predetermined location — like a church, community center or coffee shop — to share experiences, educate and support one another. Living with a chronic disease can lead to elevated anxiety or depression in patients and their close family members. When not addressed, such psychological distress risks accelerating disease progression and leading to worse health outcomes. Fortunately, there’s evidence that support groups can lessen the social and psychological burden of dealing with a chronic disease.
Support groups may offer information about the disease and its effective treatment, while creating a space for people to talk about the impact of the disease on one’s self-esteem, relationships, and finances. It is also a forum for participants to both vent frustrations and offer comfort or advice to others. Intervention techniques employed in support groups include skill-building, goal-setting, self-monitoring, interpersonal effectiveness and self-esteem building. These skills can improve self-efficacy for disease management.
Some studies have shown that regular attendance in support group sessions can even improve physical symptoms. One study among people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), found that joint tenderness improved among those who attended 10 weekly sessions for stress management and mutual support groups compared with those who did not. This may be due to the fact that perceived social support ultimately has an impact on a person’s pain experience. Analysis of data collected in a cross-sectional study of arthritis patients showed that severe pain and low social support were significantly and independently associated with depression. Thus, increasing social support may simultaneously lower risk of both depression and severe pain.
While many social support programs are delivered in-person, the rise of virtual patient communities is facilitating a shift to online formats. Online forums have also been found to be effective at improving patients’ quality of life and sense of self-efficacy (i.e., feeling of being empowered to manage a disease).
Support groups may not work for everyone, but there is good evidence that they work well for some. Learning more about a disease and connecting with others who can relate to the experience in support groups can foster a sense of control over their disease and its symptoms, thereby improving overall wellbeing.
Please comment below on your own experience with support groups. If you’ve participated in one, how did you learn about it? What did you get out of it? What advice do you have for others?
Our Summer Research Intern from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Amin Yakubu, contributed background research and writing for this post.