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Suffering from a chronic illness, mental health condition, an emotional issue, or just want to talk to someone who can relate to you? Many people make life-long friendships with people they met in support groups. It's a great way to find people out there just like you, so you don't feel alone in your healing journey.
Support groups offer all types of support for people suffering from conditions that range from life-threatening to chronic issues and moderate annoyances. These groups meet in person and online and offer emotional support, resources, and treatment options.
If you or a loved one is suffering from issues ranging from loneliness to COVID-related issues to life-threatening conditions, support is available.
What Are Support Groups?
Support groups are specialized groups that meet in person or online at a specialized time to provide support and resources for various issues.
Types of Support Groups: Aren’t Support Groups Just for Addiction?
Support groups are very popular with patients suffering from different addictions. Yet, these groups aren’t only for addiction.
You can get support for pretty much any physical or mental condition in one of these groups. Some of the most popular groups support:
Mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety
Otherly abled people
Substance abuse (Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous)
Young adult issues
Many of these groups meet in person, but many more now meet online. The benefits of online support groups include availability and convenience.
Benefits of Support Groups
As the name suggests, these groups offer support to people in different situations. They offer a variety of support and services, including mental health support, skills, motivation, and resources.
Some people join support groups to find mental support (as in addiction or bereavement groups), while others simply need resources to handle different conditions or situations. They often range in topic, and you’ll find groups that cover topics as varied as chronic illnesses, caregivers, loneliness, mental illnesses, working moms, and more.
Support groups offer three main benefits:
Skills and motivation
Mental Health Benefits
One of the main reasons to join a support group is for emotional support and mental health benefits. If you’re joining a group, for this reason, you may want to find a group that a mental healthcare practitioner facilitates. Yet, this isn’t always necessary.
Talking through your feelings with others going through similar situations can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Some of the main mental health and emotional support benefits of joining a support group include lowered feelings of:
Skills and Motivation
Support groups aren’t group therapy, so they provide some skills you may not be able to hone in traditional therapy settings. Instead of getting to the bottom of your feelings through pointed questions and regression, you’ll talk about your feelings and actions, and other members will be able to provide feedback and advice. Some of the skills you may learn in a support group include improve:
Ability to handle challenges
Understanding of a situation
Support groups also offer plenty of resources for their members, and many facilitators keep a master copy of resources for members. Just some of the resources members often share with each other include:
Support Groups Vs Group Therapy
It’s important to understand the distinction between support groups and group therapy because the two are not interchangeable.
Support groups simply offer support. They may or may not be led by a licensed professional; some support groups are led by members, while some are not ‘led’ at all in the traditional sense.
Group therapy is usually a paid service (though some group therapy sessions may be paid for with community funds or by non-profit organizations). It’s led by a mental health professional licensed in counseling, therapy, psychology, or psychiatry.
If you’re looking for group therapy, you may want to seek out a mental health professional or find a non-profit that sponsors these services.
Are Support Groups Right for Me?
If you’re looking for group support on any topic, you may find relief in a support group. There’s a group for pretty much any type of mental, medical, or emotional condition. Groups are available for those suffering from issues as well as family members that are affected by certain issues (such as family members of people with bipolar disorder, alcohol addiction, or chronic illnesses).
Support groups aren’t for everyone. They usually require you to be vulnerable, ask questions, and offer support for others. If you’re already a caregiver or feel like your tank is 'always on empty,' you may feel that joining a support group simply isn’t for you at this time — and that’s OK too.
Before joining a support group, ask yourself the following questions:
What do I want from a support group?
What expectations do I have from its members?
What goals do I have to overcome issues and challenges?
Am I emotionally available enough to listen to others?
Do I need more support (such as talk therapy, group therapy, or psychiatry) than a support group can offer?
What expectations do I have for myself in this group?
Even if you’re concerned that you may not have enough to give others, a support group may still be an ideal solution to your problems.
Support Group Format: What to Expect
There are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of different types of support groups. These groups vary in topic, format, structure, formality, and function. You’ll find groups that support lifestyles, mental health issues, chronic conditions, and more.
Since support groups often aren’t led by mental health professionals, you may want to understand your own expectations before heading into a session. If you’ve determined that you could benefit from a support group, you may want to do a little research into the different groups available.
Many support groups follow a similar format. Whether or not the group is led by a mental health professional or facilitator, there’s usually someone leading the group. This simply creates some structure and ensures everyone gets the same amount of time to talk (and ensures the group doesn’t get out of control).
The leader usually starts the group session. Sometimes support groups invite guests to lead the session (celebrities, past members, professional therapists or counselors, authors, or thought leaders).
More often than not, the group will simply consist of current members. These members are often vetted to ensure others feel safe talking about their issues. Some groups may ask members to sign a non-disclosure agreement to ensure privacy and create a safe environment.
The leader may start each session with a theme or start by sharing their own challenges or successes. Leaders may also ask other members to kick off a session with a current challenge or success.
Sessions may also include questions for other members or requests for resources. It’s important to use this time to both listen to other members of the group and share your own experiences and knowledge. Support groups are usually a collaborative process.
These groups may have a formal format or be very informal. Some support groups meet in a public place (like a cafe, church basement, or community center), and some take place in a private place — like someone’s living room.
You may want to join a group that fits your needs. If you simply want to sit and chat with other members in a casual setting, try to find a group that fits those needs. If you need more structure, seek a group that offers the level of structure you’re looking for.
Online Vs In-Person Support Groups
Online support groups are a relatively newer form of these types of groups. Online support groups meet in a virtual space instead of face-to-face.
There are some major benefits to joining an online support group (yet, these groups aren’t always for everyone). Some people love the personability and connectivity of in-person support groups, while others appreciate online groups' anonymity and convenience.
Online Support Group Pros and Cons
Thinking of joining an online support group? There’s not many risks involved with joining such a group, as these groups are easy to access, easy to join, and easy to quit (if it turns out the group isn’t for you!).
Online support groups follow a similar format to in-person support groups. The biggest difference is that these groups meet in virtual, online spaces. Digital Clinic platforms such as Hims (for men) and Hers (for women) are now offering FREE weekly virtual support group sessions. Topics change weekly and range from topics such as relationships to self-care to staying motivated to managing anxiety. Most sessions last an hour and are conducted similarly to in-person groups where there is one facilitator (or leader) and many participants sharing back and forth.
Depending on the platform you use, you may find the format almost identical to in-person groups (set meeting times, live meetings, and led by a facilitator); though, some online support group platforms simply provide message boards or chat rooms for members to connect with others.
Online Support Group Pros
Online support groups like Wisdo offer plenty of benefits that you won’t find at in-person support groups. The most common benefits of online support groups include:
Ideal for COVID
A large variety of chat room topics
Meet people from all over the country
Great for those in rural areas
Many support groups were forced to transfer to virtual spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online support group platforms provide a safe, socially distant space where people can get support on pretty much any topic — even COVID support.
These online groups made support groups more available for people that live in rural areas or small towns; it’s often difficult for people to join support groups when they know everyone in their area and don’t want to open up to the entire town. Rural areas often also don’t have enough people with the same issues to host support groups.
These groups are also easily accessible. You don’t need to travel to make a meeting, so you never need to worry about transportation (which is especially ideal for mobility-impaired or elderly members).
There’s also a high amount of anonymity in online support groups. You don’t need to upload a photo, so others may never know your real identity. This type of anonymity allows for more honest, open sharing — and is ideal for anyone that suffers from social anxiety.
Online Support Group Cons
While online support groups have created new opportunities for people that otherwise never have joined such a group, they aren’t perfect for everyone. Just a few downsides of these groups include:
Too easy to quit
Need an internet or smartphone connection
Cost to join (sometimes)
Not ideal for anyone not comfortable with technology
One of the most common reasons that someone may not want to join an online support group is access to technology. Not everyone has an internet or cell connection, and some people simply aren’t comfortable with technology.
Others may worry about the security of online support groups or be concerned that their family members might find their online chat content.
Online support groups can also feel slightly less personable to members that feel more comfortable verbalizing their issues. Some online support groups also charge a small membership fee.
In-Person Support Groups Pros and Cons
In-person support groups meet in person (as their name suggests!) and offer similar help to online groups. These groups have been around since the beginning of time, providing support for pretty much any issue under the sun.
In-Person Support Group Pros
In-person support groups offer benefits that you may not be able to find in online support groups. Some of the most common benefits include:
Face-to-face interaction with others like you
Intimate discussion groups
Lifelong connections with real people
Support from people that live in your community
Online support groups can offer the same above benefits, but the biggest difference is that you’ll interact with others online instead of face-to-face. Extroverts, people with learning disabilities (such as dyslexia), and those without access to technology may simply enjoy in-person support groups more than online ones.
In-Person Support Group Cons
The most common downsides of in-person support groups include:
Not ideal for introverts
Need to commute to a meeting
Not widely available for people in rural areas
How to Get the Most From Your Group
If you’re worried about your expectations of a support group, you may want to consider the following ways to get the most from the group:
Give as much as you get
Learn to be a good listener
Try not to ruminate
Learn to be vulnerable
Set boundaries with other members
If you’re struggling because of a physical, mental, or emotional issue, you don’t need to suffer alone.
Support groups are available both online and in-person and provide resources and help for both people suffering from issues — as well as their family members and close friends.
If you’ve had thoughts of suicide, hurting yourself, or hurting others, call the National Suicide Helpline at 800-273-8255.