If you’re suffering from diabetes, arthritis, cancer or another serious or chronic illness, participating in a support group can boost your emotional and even your physical wellbeing.
Unfortunately, few people who could benefit from participating in a group do so.
Some of us shy away from support groups because we fear we’ll be too embarrassed to discuss our problems with strangers. Of course, members of a support group don’t remain strangers for long.
Others view support groups as a source of emotional “hand-holding” for people who are weak or insecure.
In fact, group participants spend little time feeling sorry for each other. They help one another face their problems head-on and it really pays off.
What the research shows
• Breast cancer
In a study at Stanford University, 86 women with advanced (metastatic) breast cancer were randomly assigned to one of two groups.
One group received standard medical care. The other group got identical care plus weekly sessions with a support group. At the end of the first year, women who had participated in the support group felt less anxious and depressed than the women who had not participated in the group. They also reported half as much physical pain as the other women.
Long-term follow-up showed something that was even more remarkable that the support group participants lived an average of 18 months longer.
• Malignant melanoma
University of California at Los Angeles researchers conducted a randomized trial of 80 melanoma patients.
The 40 patients assigned to the control group received standard medical care. The other 40 patients in the experimental group got standard medical care and they participated in weekly support group sessions.
When tested six weeks later, the experimental group reported less anxiety and depression than the control group. Six years later, 10 members of the control group had died. Only three of the experimental group had died.
A University of Chicago study found that male diabetics who participated in support groups were less depressed than similar men who did not participate in support groups.
What accounts for these dramatic findings? One theory is that the social support created by a group boosts the immune system by reducing the psychological stress associated with serious illness, and is known to interfere with immunity.
This theory is supported by the UCLA study, which found unusually high levels of immune system cells called natural-killer cells in patients who participated in support groups.
Support group members also encourage each other to take better care of them physically. Some act as advocates for one another, making sure they get access to information and proper treatment.
Groups fight isolation by giving members a chance to talk to people who understand what they’re going through this at a time when family and friends may not know what to say.
Finally, support groups help people find meaning in their suffering. Because the group gives them an opportunity to use their own experiences to help others, many patients feel that some good has come from a bad situation.
Finding the right group
The group’s facilitator should be knowledgeable about group dynamics as well as about your specific illness and its treatment.
Look for a group headed by a psychologist, doctor, nurse or social worker. Fees should be reasonable no more than $40 per person per session.
If you can’t find a group near you, start your own. Post a notice at a hospital, clinic or church, seeking members who are dealing with the same illness. At the same time, start your search for a facilitator.
Many successful groups are run by their members (and have no leader). However, a professional facilitator is best equipped to handle members who get upset, try to dominate the discussion or keep avoiding important issues.
For maximum benefit
You’ll get the most out of your group by making a point to attend every session. It’s much easier to establish a trusting environment if all of the participants commit themselves to showing up for the sessions.
Do not feel obliged to speak up. Realize, however, that you will get more from a group the more you talk about what you are going through and the better you are at listening to other members.