Support groups can play an important role in coping with and overcoming problems. Organizing and maintaining a strong support group does take time and effort. Consider the following when starting one in your community.
You can’t help everyone. The broader the group, the greater effort you will make to help others understand their similarities. And a group that is too narrowly focused (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers with contamination rituals only) is likely to have difficulty finding enough members to sustain itself. Think about what similarities you expect members to be able to share.
Consider whether to include families and friends. Inviting them can be a useful way to gain greater understanding of the sufferer's problems. But not all family members are understanding, so they may be disruptive or use what they hear in a selective way against the sufferer, and some will not feel comfortable sharing their experiences with their family members present.
Creating an atmosphere of respect will determine everyone's ability to share with one another. Your members are individuals, so even in a narrowly focused group, sufferers will have experiences that are uniquely their own. As the leader of the group, it is your job to model respect for everyone's problems.
A support group leader is responsible for maintaining the structure of the group and keeping the group on topic. Leaders also set up meetings and clean up afterwards and make arrangements for speakers. They must be assertive; if you are not comfortable being assertive, look for this quality in a co-leader.
A professional at a meeting can answer questions with expertise. Also, he or she can help someone in obvious distress by taking that person aside and determining if it’s necessary to contact a family member, therapist, or local crisis center. (In such cases, the distressed person usually returns to the group after a short time.) Meanwhile you can continue the meeting. If you can't or don’t want to find a professional, helping group members will fall to you or a co-leader.
If the purpose of your group is to help fellow sufferers take some control over their problems, meetings should be at least every other week. If your group will be informational, such as hosting a speaker at each meeting, then monthly meetings are sufficient. In general, a meeting that includes both discussion and goal-planning should be about two hours long.
Although some leaders choose to hold support group meetings in their home, it’s recommended that you seek out schools, colleges, churches, community centers, libraries, or other free space in your community. You will need to know meeting times, including time for setup and cleanup, how many will likely attend, the number of chairs and tables needed, etc.
Gather information about diagnosis and available treatment options for people suffering from the anxiety or anxiety-related disorders on which your group will focus. Start by browsing this website. Other sources include newspaper and magazine articles, videos of relevant television segments, guest speakers, and other websites.
A well-organized marketing effort will prove invaluable to your group’s success. Develop a flyer that briefly describes your group, where and when it meets, and contact information. Ask local mental health organizations and professionals to post the flyer in their offices or send an announcement to their members or patients. Contact your local newspaper and TV stations and inquire about putting your group information on their local calendar. You may also want to contact other support groups and ask if they can refer people to you or market your group on Facebook and other social networking sites. Be sure to let ADAA know when your group is up and running.
Running the Meeting
To guide discussion around a specific topic, you might invite a professional to give a presentation during the first part of the meeting. This way the speaker provides perspective on a particular issue. Also, your support group may work out of a self-help book chapter by chapter.
Another option for focused discussion is choosing a topic before the meeting. Topics can be directly or indirectly related to the group’s core problems of the group, and each member should have a chance to share thoughts about it. Leaders may want to respond first. Nobody should be forced to speak; it is acceptable for someone to decline to respond.
Medication should not be discussed. Medications can play an important role in treatment, but the goal of your support group is to provide support and help members learn how to regain control of their behavior.
Members should also choose a specific goal to work on that can be accomplished by the next meeting. Each person’s success helps the whole group. Those having difficulty may view the success of others as inspiration.
Keep goals simple and behavioral. Being specific makes it easier for one to know when you have succeeded. Pick something you will actually do. Too often people pick impossibly huge goals. A goal should be active—to act or think in a new way. A passive goal (one to omit certain behaviors) are harder to accomplish and will be less effective in producing behavioral change than will active goals.
There are no failures. When a member does not succeed at achieving a goal, do not call it a failure. A goal that was not achieved merely means that the group needs to help that person find a different way to accomplish the same goal.
Informal socializing should be the final part of the meeting. Make refreshments available. Everyone should be free to talk about what could not be shared during the meeting. This includes friends catching up with one another, continuing informal discussion of the chosen topic, and asking for additional advice from leaders or other members.