Peer Support and Self Help Groups in the Community - Cheyenne VA Medical Center
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Cheyenne VA Medical Center

 

Peer Support and Self Help Groups in the Community

A Peer Support Group, also referred to as a “self-help group” or a “mutual aid” or “mutual help” group, refers to a group of people who gather together to talk about shared problems or experiences and to provide informal support to each other.  The focus of the group may be a common health problem (e.g. addiction, diabetes, depression),  a life problem (they have suffered trauma, loss of child, or bankruptcy) or a personal circumstance or challenge (they are Veterans, are trying to lose weight, or are looking to advance their career).  Peer support groups meet for members to provide each other with support, usually in the form of emotional support, information or guidance based on personal experience.  While some “support groups” may have a professional facilitator, peer support groups focus on support from non-professional members who attend voluntarily.

Peer support groups can take many forms.  For example, some groups are open to drop-in attendance, indicating that anyone who is seeking peer support can attend any meeting.  In contrast, a group may be closed, indicating that attendance is limited to a specific set of people who are identified as members of the group.  While most peer support groups are fairly small, allowing everyone to get a chance to talk, some are quite large or have no limits on their size.  Some groups have a fairly set routine for how their meetings are run, and others have unstructured meetings.  Participation in some groups is typically just a few meetings in length, while other groups have members who have been attending for years.

Participation in peer support groups has grown dramatically over the past 50 years.  Ten to twenty percent of the U.S. population have participated in a peer support group at some time in their lives, with between 5- and 10% having participated in the past year.  While peer support groups exist for most physical or psychiatric problems known to medicine, and a wide range of life challenges and experiences, the most commonly attended groups are focused on helping participants overcome substance use disorders.   If we consider the number of visits people make for any type of mental health problem, more visits are made to peer support groups than to mental health professionals.  This popularity is not due to marketing, as these groups generally have no marketing and limited publicity of any form.  Instead, the popularity is due to the benefits that participants experience, the ease of access, and the lack of any formal cost.  It is worth considering some of the specific benefits that participants and researchers have identified.

Common Benefits

Feeling Less Isolated:  Feeling isolated or “different” is a common part of people’s experience when they are dealing with a clinical or life problem.  Gathering with others who are facing the same challenge is a very concrete way to decrease the feeling of being alone.  Participants in peer support groups often comment about not feeling “so alone” or feeling that they are with people “who understand me” because of the shared experience.    In many situations, diminishing the sense of isolation is the most important step in making a challenge more manageable.

Receiving Practical Information Based on Personal Experience: While there are usually a range of sources of information to help people deal with almost any life challenge (books, websites, professionals), the information that can be provided by others with a lived experience with the challenge has some unique advantages.  It is often more practical and realistic, as it comes from someone who has actually struggled with the problem.  It is easier to have confidence in it, because it comes from some with the experience and who usually does not have any financial incentive for what they share.

Receiving Emotional Support: We are social animals, and receiving social support is a great influence on our emotional wellbeing and physical wellbeing.  Peer support groups are usually a setting in which members provide encouragement and affirmation for the other members, providing much needed support from people who understand the situation due to lived experience.   Most people who attend peer support groups have caring family and friends who could provide that support.  Instead of getting emotional support for a specific issue from other family and friends, many people would rather look for support outside their current network of supports. 

Receiving Practical Support:  While receiving emotional support is a key benefit to most peer support groups, we should not overlook practical support as a benefit.  As relationships in peer support groups develop over time, many members support each other in practical ways outside of the meeting.  This support can take many forms, but it is often just part of the exchange of support that makes group membership valuable for all.

Gaining Insight Into How To Deal With The Problem: Most peer support group meetings involve attendees talking about how they are trying to cope with the challenge they are facing, and listening to other attendees do the same.  A common benefit that attendees identify is that these discussions result in better insight to the experience and improved strategies for coping with the challenge or living with the challenge.

Gaining Broader Insight Into Yourself and Your Life: “Attending a peer support group is like holding a mirror in front of me -- I see myself more clearly by listening to others in the same situation.”  This comment by a peer support group member points to a key benefit for many attendees.  We often don’t see ourselves clearly, and peer support groups help us understand our own experiences and reactions to those experiences.  Many peer support group members also report that being part of a group helped them see the meaning of their experience and their life in a different way.  .

Gaining a greater sense of control of the problem:  Improved insight and coping strategies usually result in an enhanced sense of control in the face of what is often a threatening situation.  Greater sense of control is usually associated with decreased stress, anxiety and depression.

Expanding or Changing Some of Your Social Network:  For those who become regular attenders in a peer support group, the group becomes part of their network of friends and colleagues, expanding the number of people they feel supported by.  For some peer support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, new members are often seeking to replace some of their social network, as they are trying to stay away from friends and/or family who are associated with the problem they are trying to deal with (drinking, drug use, gambling, etc.).  The peer support group provides a way of replacing those connections with new people with the same goal.

Using Your Experience to Help Others: Peer support groups involve give-and-take and most members come to value the experience of giving to others as much, or more than the experience of receiving support.  Many find it particularly satisfying that they can use their difficulty experiences to help others avoid some problems and manage other problems better.

Building Trust in Others:  Peer support groups can be a place where members learn that there are other people who are supportive and trustworthy.  For some, that is a new lesson, or an important lesson to re-learn.  Some have few opportunities to develop relations with others they can trust, and the chance to do so can be a life-changing experience.

One of the other common types of groups that people may experience or know about is group psychotherapy.  There are some important distinctions between peer support groups and group therapy that are worth considering:

Peer Support Groups

Psychotherapy Groups

Are composed entirely or almost entirely of people who have a common life experience or problem.  All attendees participate due to their status as peers - they all have the shared problem or challenge

Are composed of one or more licensed clinicians who create and manage a formal clinical experience for a group of people who are “patients” to the providers. 
May or may not have an identified  facilitator.  Most facilitators/leaders are not professional clinicians.  There is usually not a significant difference between the status and role of the facilitator and the other members. Always are led by one or more licensed professional clinicians.  There is significant difference between the providers and the attendees in terms of status and role.
Because leadership is informal, the facilitators have limited or no liability for what happens at the meeting other than what is expected of any adult. Because the leader is a licensed professional, they are responsible for leading the group within community-based professional standards and are liable for their actions.
Attendance is voluntary While attendance is voluntary, there may also be financial or clinical expectations between the leader and the attendees.
There is usually no cost to peer support groups, or any cost is voluntary. There is usually a cost paid by the attendee and/or their healthcare insurance.
The main benefit comes from discussion between peers attending the meeting. The main benefits come from either discussion between those patients attending the meeting or comments and guidance from the professional leader.

Contact Info

Location

  • Cheyenne VA Healthcare System

Contact Number(s)

  • 307-778-7550 Ext. 7349
  • 888-483-9127 Ext. 7349

Hours of Operation

  • M-F, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.