How to Run a Successful Support Group

By November 12, 2019Blog

If you have ever had the idea to start a support group in your local area or community, these tips might help the process.

I personally ran weekly support groups in the area of eating disorders, for sufferers and their families, for a period of 8 years.  Those groups and the people who attended taught me a wealth of information, which I want to share with you here today.

Questions to ponder:

1. The first step is to Think About what you want to Accomplish. What are your reasons, visions and purposes behind the group.

2. Do you want the group to be closed (limited numbers) or open (anyone can attend whenever it suits). Will it be a limited series of dates (e.g. 12 week program) or run throughout the year on the same day of the week/month and the same time?

3. What type of leader do you want to be? Are you skilled as an expert in something, and that is what you are offering? Or are you a consumer who wants to facilitate the gathering but not lead it in any way?

My reason was to support people in the larger community who suffered an eating disorder, who might not have been able to attend individual therapy or wanted a group as an adjunct to standard care.

My role was as an expert – the support group I ran was open – anyone could attend, whenever they want. The topic was always set by myself every time we met (which was often weekly, although was fortnightly sometimes over the 8 years), and there was always some type of loose structure to follow. This might have been a topic to talk about (and we went wherever that flowed) or an exercise to engage in.

  1. How will you let people know about the group? Can you access potential people through social media? A Meet-Up forum? Do you want to target specific groups only? Or the general community?
  2. Finally, where will the venue be? Do you need to consider any fees for rental? Or insurance such as public liability (in case someone injures themselves at the venue). Will you charge a nominal fee for attendance, or will it be free? Would refreshments be necessary or expected? How will you handle this?

My groups were all free at attend and no refreshments were provided (although we did have a Christmas breakup every December where everyone bought a plate to share). I approached a local community hall for the venue and they provided it free of charge as the support group was not an income generator.

Rationale for Group Work

Group work enables participants to come together to support one another and create a counterculture where diversity is accepted and competition is challenged. Group situations create a safe forum for the exploration of issues or themes, for some participants perhaps for the first time.

Group situations create an opportunity for participants to develop networks, share common experiences and identify with one another whilst developing strategies for coping.

Support groups may provide a very necessary and unique therapeutic intervention to address isolation, increase knowledge, encourage self-responsibility, enhance confidence, identify feelings and place their concerns within the wider context of life experiences.

The global purposes of any support group may include:

• continued development and documentation of support group
• to co-ordinate and facilitate the skills being taught, in a group setting
• to develop an effective and efficient system for reaching many people

The objectives a support group might be:

• to enhance the understanding of the underlying issues that bring people to the group
• to decrease the experience of isolation, shame and misinformation relating to the group theme
• to enhance participant’s sense of self-esteem and sense of control in their lives
• to enhance participants’ ability to seek support (including individual) that will assist them in their journey

What might your purpose and objectives be?

Practical Steps on the Day

For the very first group (and anytime there are new members), discuss the group rules. You may brainstorm these the first time you start, and take a written note of these rules to draw up and present at each session (e.g. as a poster)

Some Ideas:

• Everyone has the right to speak

• Everyone has the right to pass if they just want to listen

• No one person should dominate the conversation at any given time (facilitator/s excluded)

• When someone is speaking or sharing an experience, they have the right to the rest of the groups’ quiet and respect

• Whilst ideas and behaviours may be critically evaluated, at no time should a participant be personally attacked

• Attendance at groups – is promptness important?

1. Will you sit in a circle? Groups tend to function better this way, rather than classroom style (although an education night might be better as lecture layout)
2. Distribute name tags if needed
3. Make introductions of yourself and any other leaders
4. Discuss the nature of confidentiality if it is appropriate – what are the guidelines around this for your group? Often support groups respect confidentiality, and discussions of personal situations must not be disclosed to others outside the group.
5. Enquire as to how everyone’s week went – allow 5-10 minutes “diffusing time”
6. Give a brief overview of the week’s group topic of choice, if that is the structure
7. Manage the time of the group in case people attending are relying on it finishing on time

Other Ideas for the Support Group

1. Guest speakers are always welcomed – especially with regular groups. It adds variety
2. Does the group need a charter, non-profit status, constitution, governing bylaws? Do you need to seek advice on this?
3. Funding? There are community organizations who offer support groups funding for one off events, or things such as printing costs for handouts
4. Your contact number – if the group requires a contact email address to be monitored or a landline/mobile number to be answered – who will do this?
5. Do you need a referral list of skilled, expert people to hand out if the needs of someone are beyond your expertise? Have that ready to go in case people want to take it
6. Will your group keep a record of attendees details (e.g. demographic information or email addresses?) – this information might be useful if you apply for any type of funding. It could be anonymously completed.
7. Will your group also have a monthly newsletter or online support aspect (e.g. Facebook secret group)

Good luck and be sure to check out our next blog that gives you an example of one of my support groups!