These are only three examples of a vast and growing number of support groups that have been organized by virtually every health and human service organization in North America. As the examples reveal, support groups have been convened on behalf of people of all ages who face a wide range of adaptive challenges that call for more specialized or intensive support than is naturally available to them. The groups are typically led or co-led by professionals who meet with from 6 to 10 people who are facing similar stressful events, transitions, or circumstances, or who have in common an affliction, disability, noxious habit, or problem in living. Typically, once composed, the support group is closed to new members, and meets on a regularly scheduled basis for a predetermined period of time and number of sessions. Although there are innumerable variations, the standard format involves the transmission of information and skills by one or more professionals, and exchanges of information and mutual aid among the participants. In principle, the combination of expert and experiential knowledge in the context of a supportive peer culture creates optimal conditions for improved coping and adaptation.
This chapter sets out the distinguishing characteristics of support groups, including their basic structural properties and formats. It explains the theoretical justification for this type of psychosocial intervention, and delves into the social influence processes that arise during the course of the intervention. Drawing on recent reviews of support groups for cancer patients and family caregivers of elderly persons, it weighs the empirical evidence concerning the mental health impact of such groups, spotlighting aspects of their design, composition, and process that deserve greater attention in the future.
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