Guidelines for Setting Up a Support Group

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Support groups are assemblies of people with similar interests, concerns and needs that join together, in person or otherwise, to share common feelings. Support groups are numerous and multifaceted, but they usually unite people with the same goal--whether it’s overcoming an illness or supporting each other on the way to self-improvement and growth. They can also be run in many different ways and have different organizational styles. There are groups that keep contact in person, by mail or through Internet sessions; support groups can be led by a professional, a layperson or an invited guest.

Getting Started

Even though there are many support groups to join, one can, and sometimes should, consider starting a new one. The reason may be there is simply no support group for the issue either at all, or locally, or that people have expressed their desire to start a new one that would be led a little differently and focus on slightly different matters--every group has its individual and unique spirit that is valuable for the members.

When one starts a support group, they should think about the reasons, structure, spirit and leaders before actually planning for the first meeting or session. Starting your own support group can be a very time-consuming task, but the shared feelings and relationships that will grow out of it are worth the effort.

You have probably identified an overwhelming need or a common interest by this time. It will be the heart of your meetings, because most of your discussions and information will circle around it. The next thing to do is to outline the sessions that you’ll have. Sometimes Internet and e-mail support groups can be very helpful if there are few people in your community with the same issues and pursuits. But one will do well to make sure that they don’t exclude anyone next to them by arranging sessions with other countries and continents. Besides, professionals haven’t agreed on the real benefits of such support groups. While we know that the important factor is communication, communication in person can be especially helpful and encouraging, so consider it your priority.

You should also be aware that a support group is a place for support and freedom. The informational part of it--like exchanging phone numbers, methods of treatment and ideas--should never take precedence over relationships and acceptance. People need to be free and open, even though you might want to encourage them to participate in the conversation, group events and encouraging others by their stories. Strive to exhibit a positive attitude.

Finding a leader may be difficult. If you start the group, you might have to take up this role, at least in the beginning. Later on, however, you may want to take turns with a member from the group or invite professionals like psychologists, social workers, medics or pastors. Just remember the leader’s role most of the time is simply structuring the event: give people a lot of time for speaking, don’t usurp time.

When all is said and done, you will start with planning the first session. It is very important and should be planned at least a month before the launch. Have an advertising campaign with posters, leaflets, TV and Internet coverage. This inaugural meeting has to be very well-organised and thought through, as it should give answers as to what will be happening in your group. You will likely want to invite a guest speaker and have a clear-cut topic that relates to your main concern.

Start the first meeting by introducing yourself and outlining the purpose of your meetings. Assure all members of the confidentiality of any information. This will be a good introduction and give a sense of confidence to the members. You can then give the floor to some of the members, with the professional focusing on some aspects like symptoms and ways of treatment. At some point, your guest can take five to seven minutes to give additional information that will then spur more discussion. Finish up with very informal conversation--everyone just talking and getting to know each other. By this time, some people will have decided who is the closest to them, a kind of soul mate. Let it finish on a high note and decide when you will have the next meeting.

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