10 Tips for Starting a Support Group

Patient Expert
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Keep meetings positive and encouraging

The number one reason people give for not wanting to go to a support group is the perception that it’s just a bunch of people getting together to whine and complain. While members need to be able to bring up problems, you always need to bring the focus back to finding solutions. Don’t allow the meeting to degenerate into an anger or self-pity session.

Be a better listener than talker

People need to be able to share their problems with someone who understands what they’re going through but they don’t need to hear all of your problems.

Remember that you set the tone for the meeting

We all have bad days and bad moods, but try not to let yours show in front of the group.  While you might acknowledge that it's been a rough day, put on a smile and forge ahead with the meeting.  If you come across as sour and discouraged, the rest of the group will soon follow suit.

Develop your own personal support system

Find one or two trusted friends with whom you are comfortable sharing your personal struggles. You need individuals in your life who will celebrate with you on good days and comfort you on bad days.

Connect with other support group leaders

Whether you meet in person, talk on the phone, or communicate through e-mail, it is helpful to develop relationships with other support group leaders. You can exchange meeting ideas, share strategies, troubleshoot problems and encourage one another during those times when you wonder whether it’s all worth it.

Set limits and stick to them

It is easy to have your life hijacked by a few group members who want your attention and will call at all hours. Decide which days and times are best for you to take calls and announce at the meeting that those are the only times you will be available to talk. Then do not answer calls from members any other time. It’s worth a small investment in an answering machine and/or caller-id to protect your time and maintain your privacy.

Encourage members to use the buddy system

Everyone needs someone to talk to, someone to commiserate with them. But you cannot be that person for every member of the group. Urge them to find someone in the group with whom they could exchange phone numbers and agree to be a mutual support system.

Be on the lookout for other potential leaders

When you find a group member who seems to have leadership qualities, consider training her to back you up in case you are unable to attend a meeting. Even if you have a co-leader, it’s good to have someone in training just in case. I have seen circumstances when both leaders were unable to attend (ie one is on vacation and the other suddenly becomes ill) and the backup had to jump in and lead the meeting.

Ask for help when you need it

It’s easy to fall into a pattern of doing everything yourself. Have a serious talk with the group and make sure they understand that the group depends on everyone’s participation. If several members each take responsibility for one small job, then no one person will feel overwhelmed. Specific tasks will vary with the group.

Be prepared to handle suicide threats

Hopefully you’ll never have to deal with this topic, but when you are working with patients who have severe pain, depression, and/or fear of what the future holds, chances are good that it will come up at some point. As a support group leader, you need to be prepared when the moment presents itself.