The power of peer self help support groups

Healing in the Everyday World: The benefits of peer self help support groups and their place in the therapeutic process towards recovery…

by Tabitha Dougall

Twenty years ago, as a new mum, I was struggling with (what felt like) atomic fallout left over from unresolved childhood abuse and complex family relationships that were collateral damage because, like most people, the perpetrator was known (from within my family) and there were mixed loyalties, ineffective coping mechanisms and no justice or resolve.

One Christmas time (when issues/feelings are often the worst), while driving I felt like crashing into a tree and ending it all, so instead I drove to my GP to get a referral to a psychiatrist. My  well-meaning GP asked why I was struggling, and told me “Christmas is a time for forgiving and forgetting” and I needed to move on.  I told her I’d spent 25 years trying to do that, and it didn’t work, and re-iterated my request for some professional support, now feeling further invalidated and unsupported by her dismissive response.

The psychiatrist was helpful with some other issues but didn’t seem to really know what to do about trauma so left that alone, and it festered.  (Many therapeutic professionals have actually had no trauma-informed training).  A few psychologists later (who were helpful to a point but traditional Cognitive Behaviour Therapy approaches don’t go deep enough or address the body, mind, emotional, soul, stigma and inner isolation issues) and I found myself borrowing everything I could find in the library about healing from trauma.  This ‘bibliotherapy’ was helpful and gave validation and a range of different approaches… and one book suggested that peer self help support groups could be helpful.

So began a journey that changed the course of my life.

Now, twenty years later, I work at a not for profit organisation part time overseeing recruiting, training and facilitation of volunteer support group facilitators and have my own private practice as a holistic counsellor. I’ve undergone a comprehensive cleansing and healing of my past with many resources suggested by support group peers.  Over the past few years I’ve been involved with training and supervising a few hundred potential self help facilitators and helping many different types of support groups start up. This all developed from a daring decision fifteen years ago to start up a support group for women survivors of child abuse, with no training or experience, just a passion and a need, and a little support from my counsellor at the time.

Why should people attend and/or run support groups? 

Self help peer support groups are opportunities for small groups of people with a similar issue to voluntarily come together on an ongoing, regular basis for mutual support, empathy and encouragement.  They are generally peer-led, democratic, with open membership (people can come and go as they need) of between 2 and 20 attendees.  There is a strengths-based, normalising, de-stigmatising philosophy rather than a pathological, problem-patient vs expert-professional approach, and they are free or low cost as opposed to fee-for-service which makes them accessible to all.  Guilt, shame, confusion, alienation, fear and disempowerment can all be discussed, unpacked and worked through in the non-hierarchical group process and over time, replaced with empowerment, connection, normalcy, agency, self-responsibility, inner peace, self esteem, self respect, inner  strength and increased social skills. Members of the group are seen as equals and experts in our own recovery journey while a broader perspective of our issues can be gained from various viewpoints and experiences of other group members and modelling from others who are further along their recovery path.  Perhaps one of the most profound benefits is when we can adjust our self-view from one of victimhood, to one of ‘helper’ where our feelings, experiences, opinions, skills and qualities matter and can make a difference to someone else. Helping others helps us feel useful and valuable, like we have something to offer to the world, altruistically increasing our sense of purpose.

It has been said that there are two important qualities that foster great mental health – purpose and connection; both of which can be enhanced in the process of contributing in support groups.  We can feel less dependent and become more active in our own healing and in assisting others.  There can be a sense of hope and a new supportive community.  Support group attendance can be a stepping-stone and adjunct to professional help.

Group guidelines/norms provide a sense of trust, emotional, psychological and physical safety, usually involving respect, non-judgment, confidentiality and no advice-giving.  These can often model new and assertive ways of relating in the outside world as well.  Group members are encouraged to share experiences and feelings and talk through their thought processes, often challenging previous secrets and shame-based stuckness while being deeply heard, understood and validated.  Often this in itself is enormously healing.  Humour from within the peer setting can also bring a certain lightness that may not be available or accessed in a professional therapeutic relationship.  Other perspectives from within the peer setting can also be easier to hear than if coming from a condescending stance which can sometimes happen in therapy, or in families.

Yalom said: “we are separate, lonely, apart from but also a part of.  One of my members (of a group) put it elegantly when she described herself as a lonely ship in the dark.  Even though no physical mooring could be made, it was nonetheless enormously comforting to see lights of other ships sailing the same water.”

There is positive research on support groups’ efficacy and they are found worldwide. So why, then, if support groups can be so helpful, are they not on every corner? Why are they not included as an important part of professional therapeutic case-management? Why are support groups not recognised, acknowledged and referred to by GPs and mental/health practitioners at least?  Not known about? Not widely funded?

Some health professionals may be of the opinion that support groups are just ‘whinge-fests’ and there is no positive movement.  My experience has shown that sometimes progress is slow, and we need to check our own impatience with others who aren’t changing to our assumed goals and timelines, however many group members have experienced compounding rejection from families, friends, workplaces and therapists and the safety they find in support group settings is the first/only time where they can feel unconditionally accepted, and it is in this kind of environment where deep healing can occur.

People with lived experience as well as health professionals can all be trained to successfully run self help groups.  In the current climate of limited funding for mental/health, self help support groups can be a valuable budget-friendly addition to ANY service provision, offering ongoing support to a wide range and number of people, both in the bustling cities and in the resource-poor regional areas, and offering the opportunity to grow, develop and re-invent oneself.  Visit the Collective of Self Help Groups (COSGH) and/or visit the Centre of Excellence for Peer Support for more information.

About the author:

Tabitha Dougall is a Holistic Counsellor, Psychotherapist and Group Facilitator with lived experience. Based in Melbourne, Tabitha promotes healing & authenticity through creative expressive modalities alongside talking therapy. She draws from broad life experience & her own healing journey, over 20 years of personal and professional development, volunteering & coaching others, and 15 years group facilitation.