Self-help Groups for Mental Health

Self-help groups for mental health

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Self-help groups for mental health are voluntary associations of people who share a common desire to overcome mental illness or otherwise increase their level of cognitive or emotional wellbeing.[1] There are several international mental health self-help organizations including Emotions Anonymous, GROW and Recovery, Inc. Recovery, Inc. uses a cognitive therapy approach, Emotions Anonymous uses a twelve step approach, whereas GROW incorporates a combination of the cognitive therapy and twelve-step methods.[2] Despite the different approaches, many of the psychosocial processes in the groups are the same and they share similar relationships with mental health professionals. The terms 'self-help', 'mutual-help' and 'mutual-aid' are used interchangeably in this context.[3]



elf-help groups for mental health provide mutual support and peer support. Mutual support is a process by which people voluntarily come together to help each other address common problems. Peer support is social, emotional or instrumental support that is mutually offered or provided by persons with similar mental health conditions where there is some mutual agreement on what is helpful.[4][5]

The definitions of mutual support and peer support include many other mental health consumer non-profits and social groups. Such groups are further distinguished as either Individual Therapy (inner-focused) or Social Reform (outer-focused) groups. In the former set members seek to improve themselves, wheres the latter set encompasses advocacy organizations such as NAMA, NAMI and USPRA.[6]

Self-help groups are subsets of mutual support and peer support groups, and have a specific purpose for mutual aid in satisfying a common need, overcoming a shared handicap or life-disrupting problem. Self-help groups are less bureaucratic and work on a more grassroots level.[4][7][8] Self-help Organizations are national affiliates of local self-help groups or mental health consumer groups that finance research, maintain public relations or lobby for legislation in favor of those affected.[7]

Behavior Control and Stress Coping groups

Of Individual Therapy groups, researchers distinguish between Behavior Control groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous and TOPS) and Stress Coping groups (such as mental health support groups, cancer patient support groups, and groups of single parents).[9] German researchers refer to Stress Coping groups as Conversation Circles.[7]

Significant differences exist between Behavioral Control groups and Stress Coping groups. Meetings of Behavior Control groups tend to be significantly larger than Stress Coping counterparts (by more than a factor of two). Behavior Control group members have a longer average group tenure than members of Stress Coping groups (45 months compared to 11 months), and are less likely to consider their membership as temporary. While very few members of either set saw professionals concurrently while being active in their group, Stress Coping members were more likely to have previously seen professionals than Behavior Control group members. Similarly, Stress Coping groups worked closer with mental health professionals.[9][10]

Talking Groups

In Germany a specific subset of Conversation Circles are categorized as Talking Groups (Gesprachsselbsthilfegruppen). In Talking Groups all members of the group have the same rights, each member is responsible only for themselves (group members do not make decisions for other group members), each group is autonomous, everyone attends the group on account of their own problems, whatever is discussed in the group remains confidential, and participation is free of charge. GROW and Recovery, Inc. meet these requirements as does any group following the Twelve Traditions (including EA, NAIL, EHA).[7] German Talking Groups have been shown to be as effective as psychoanalytically orientated group therapy.[7][11]

Affiliation and Lifespan

If self-help groups are not affiliated with a national organization, professional involvement increases their "lifespan." Conversely, if particular groups are affiliated with a national organization professional involvement decreases their lifespan.[12] Rules enforcing self-regulation in Talking Groups are essential for the group's effectiveness.[7]


Emotions Anonymous

Main article: Emotions Anonymous

Emotions Anonymous (EA) is a twelve step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but for the purpose of helping its members recover from depression and other mental illnesses. EA is the largest of three organizations that have adapted AA's Twelve Steps to create a program for people suffering from mental or emotional illness, replacing the word "alcohol" with "our emotions" in the First Step. The smaller organizations are Neurotics Anonymous and Emotional Health Anonymous (EHA). EA is a successor organization of Neurotics Anonymous. To avoid confusion with the more well known twelve-step program, Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Neurotics Anonymous is abbreviated N/A or NAIL.

EA and NAIL are open to anyone who desires to become emotionally well.[13][14] EHA open to anyone with a desire to become emotionally well, if they are not suffering from problems that are specifically addressed by other twelve-step groups (e.g. substance abuse, eating disorders, sexual addiction, compulsive gambling, etc).[15] According to the Twelve Traditions, EA, NAIL, and EHA groups cannot not accept outside contributions.[2]


Main article: GROW

GROW was founded in Sydney, Australia, in 1957 by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Cornelius Keogh, and some people who had sought help with their mental illness by attending AA meetings. After its inception, GROW members learned of Recovery, Inc. and integrated some of its processes into their program. GROW's original literature includes the Twelve Stages of Decline, which state that emotional illness begins with self-centeredness, and the Twelve Steps of Recovery and Personal Growth, a blend of AA's Twelve Steps and will-training methods from Recovery, Inc. GROW groups are open to anyone who would like to join, though they specifically recruit people who have been in psychiatric hospitals or are socioeconomically disadvantaged. GROW does not operate with funding restrictions and have received state and outside funding in the past.[2]

Recovery, Inc.

Main article: Recovery, Inc.

Recovery, Inc. was founded in Chicago, Illinois in 1937 by psychiatrist Abraham Low using principles in contrast to those popularized by psychoanalysis. Low wrote the principal book, Mental Health Through Will Training[16], used in the organization. Recovery, Inc. is open to anyone identifying as "nervous" (a term that, when the organization was created, more closely meant neurotic). Recovery, Inc. admonishes members if they do not follow their physician's, psychologist's or psychiatrist's orders. Recovery, Inc. does not operate with funding restrictions and has received state and outside funding in the past.[2]

Fundamentally, Low believes "Adult life is not driven by instincts but guided by Will," using a definition of will opposite of Arthur Schopenhauer's. Low's program is based on increasing determination to act, self-control and self-confidence. Sociologist Edward Sagarin compared it to a modern, reasonable, and rational implementation of Émile Coué's psychotherapy.[17] Recovery, Inc. is "twelve-step friendly" despite different understandings of will used in each program. [18]

Professional lead group psychotherapy

Main article: Group therapy

Self-help groups are not intended to provide "deep" psychotherapy. Nevertheless, their emphasis on psychosocial processes does achieve constructive treatment goals. People with the same mental share similar feelings and experiences. This feature is not always present in psychotherapy.[19]

Interpersonal learning, which is done through processes such as feedback and confrontation, is generally deemphasized in self-help groups. This is largely because it can be threatening, and requires training and understanding of small group processes. Similarly, reality testing, is also deemphasized. Reality testing relies on consensual validation, offering feedback, seeking feedback and confrontation. These processes seldom occur in self-help groups, though they frequently occur in professionally directed groups.[5][10]

Group processes

No two self-help group are exactly alike, the make-up and attitudes are influenced by the group ideology and environment.[5] In most cases, the group becomes a miniature society that can function like a buffer between the members and the rest of the world.[19] The most essential processes are those that meet personal and social needs in an environment of safety and simplicity. Elegant theoretical formulations, systematic behavioral techniques, and complicated cognitive-restructuring methods are not necessary.[10]

Despite the differences, researchers have identified many psychosocial processes occurring in self-help groups related to their effectiveness. This list includes, but is not limited too: acceptance, behavioral rehearsal, changing member's perspectives of themselves, changing member's perspectives of the world, catharsis, extinction, role modeling, learning new coping strategies, mutual affirmation, personal goal setting, instilling hope, justification, normalization, positive reinforcement, reducing social isolation, reducing stigma, self-disclosure, sharing (or "opening up"), and showing empathy.[4][5][7][10][19][20][21]

Five theoretical frameworks have been used in attempts to explain the effectiveness of self-help groups.[4]

  1. Social support: Having a community of people to give physical and emotional comfort, people who love and care, is a moderating factor in the development of psychological and physical disease.
  2. Experiential knowledge: Members obtain specialized information and perspectives that other members have obtained through living with severe mental illness. Validation of their approaches to problems increase their confidence.
  3. Social learning theory: Members with experience become creditable role models.
  4. Social comparison theory: Individuals with similar mental illness are attracted to each other in order to establish a sense of normalcy for themselves. Comparing one another to each other is considered to provide other peers with an incentive to change for the better either through upward comparison (looking up to someone as a role model) or downward comparison (seeing an example of how debilitating mental illness can be).
  5. Helper theory: Those helping each other feel greater interpersonal competence from changing other's lives for the better. The helpers feel they have gained as much as they have given to others. The helpers receive "personalized learning" from working with helpees. The helpers' self-esteem improves with the social approval received from those they have helped, putting them an a more advantageous position to help others.

Relationship with mental health professionals

A 1978 survey of mental health professionals in the United States found they had a relatively favorable opinion of self-help groups and there was a hospitable climate for integration and cooperation with self-help groups in the mental health delivery system.[8] Since then, the role of self-help groups in instilling hope, facilitating coping, and improving the quality of life of their members has become widely accepted in many areas both inside and outside of the general medical community.[5]

A survey of psychotherapists in Germany found that 50% of the respondents reported a high or very high acceptance of self-help groups and 43.2% rated their acceptance of self-help groups as moderate. Only 6.8% of respondents rated their acceptance of self-help groups as low or very low.[22]

Similarly, research with members of self-help groups has shown very little evidence of antagonism towards mental health professionals.[2] The maxim of self-help groups in the United States is "Doctors know better than we do how a sickness can be treated. We know better than doctors how sick people can be treated as humans."[7]


Referrals to self-help groups for mental health have been found not to be as effective as arranging a meeting for prospective Self-help members with veterans of the self-help group. This is true even when compared to referrals from professionals familiar with the self-help group when referring clients to it.[20] Referrals mostly come from informal sources (e.g. family, friends, word of mouth, self). Those attending groups as a result of professional referrals account for only one fifth to one third of the population.[5] One survey found 54% of members learned about their self-help group from the media, 40% learned about the their group from friends and relatives, and relatively few learned about them from professional referrals.[9]


Self-help groups have been found to be beneficial in helping people cope with and recover from a wide variety of problems.[4][23] Participation in self-help groups for mental health is correlated with reductions in psychiatric hospitalizations, and shorter hospitalizations if they occur. Members demonstrate improved coping skills, greater acceptance of their illness, improved medication adherence, decreased levels of worry, higher satisfaction with their health, improved daily functioning and improved illness management. Participation in self-help groups for mental has also been shown to encourage more appropriate use of professional services, making the time spent in care more efficient. The amount of time spent in the programs, and how proactive the members are in them, has also been correlated with increased benefits.[4][20] Decreased hospitalization and shorter durations of hospitalization indicate that self-help groups result in financial savings for the health care system, as hospitalization is one of the most expensive mental health services. Similarly, reduced utilization of other mental health services may translate into additional savings for the system.[4]

While Self-help groups for mental health increase self-esteem, reduce stigma, accelerate rehabilitation, improve decision-making, decrease tendency to decompensate under stress, and improve social functioning, they are not always shown to reduce psychiatric symptomatology.[5][19][24] The therapeutic effects are attributed to the increased social support, sense of community, education and personal empowerment.[25][26][27]

Members of self-help groups for mental health rated their perception of the group's effectiveness on average at 4.3 on a 5-point Likert scale.[9]


There are several limitations of self-help groups for mental health, including but not limited to their: inability to keep detailed records, lack of formal procedure to follow-up with members, absence of formal screening procedures for new members, lack formal leadership training, likely inability of members to recognize a "newcomer" presenting with a serious illness requiring immediate treatment; additionally, there is a lack of professional or legal regulatory constraints determining how such groups can operate, there is a danger that members may disregard the advice of mental health professionals, and there can be an anti-therapeutic suppression of ambivalence and hostility.[2][19] Researchers have also elaborated specific criticisms regarding self-help groups' formulaic approach, attrition rates, overgeneralization, and "panacea complex."

Formulaic approach

Researchers have questioned whether formulaic approaches to self-help group therapy, like the Twelve Steps, could stifle creativity or if adherence to them may prevent the group from making useful or necessary changes.[19][28] Similarly others have criticized self-help group structure as being too rigid.[2]

High attrition rates

There is not a universal appeal of self-help groups, researchers have found that as little as 17% of persons invited to attend a self-help group do so. Of those people, only one third stayed past four months. Those who continue are people who value the meetings and the self-help group experience.[5][2][19]


Since these groups are not specifically diagnosis-related, but rather for anyone seeking mental and emotional health, they may not provide the necessary sense of community to evoke feelings of oneness required for recovery in self-help groups.[20]

Panacea complex

There is a risk that self-help group members may come to believe that participation in the group can cure anything, or at least more than what it was designed to.[5][19]

See also


  1. ^ a b Office of the Surgeon General and various United States Government agencies (1999) Mental Health: A report of the Surgeon General. Section 10: Overview of Recovery
  2. ^ Ramon, S., Healy, B. & Renouf, N. (2007) Recovery from Mental Illness as an Emergent Concept and Practice in Australia and the UK International Journal of Social Psychiatry, Vol. 53, No. 2, 108-122
  3. ^ Deegan, PE (1988) Recovery: The lived experience of rehabilitation Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal 11 (4)
  4. ^ Jacobson, N. and Curtis, L. (2000) Recovery as Policy in Mental Health Services: Strategies Emerging from the States. Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, Spring
  5. ^ Bellack AS. (2006) Scientific and consumer models of recovery in schizophrenia: concordance, contrasts, and implications. Schizophr Bull. Jul;32(3):432-42. PMID 16461575
  6. ^ Secker, J; Membrey, H; Grove, B; Seebohm, Patience. (2002) Recovering from Illness or Recovering your Life? Implications of Clinical Versus Social Models of Recovery from Mental Health Problems for Employment Support Services Disability & Society Volume 17, Issue 4 June 2002 , pages 403 - 418
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Repper, J. & Perkins, R. (2006) Social Inclusion and Recovery: A Model for Mental Health Practice. Bailliere Tindall, UK. ISBN 0702026018
  8. ^ Carlos Pratt, Kenneth J. Gill, Nora M. Barrett, Melissa M. Roberts (2002) Psychiatric Rehabilitation
  9. ^ US Dept of Health and Human Services National Consensus Statement on Mental Health Recovery
  10. ^ American Psychiatric Association (2003) Recovery Movement Gains Influence In Mental Health Programs Psychiatric News January 3, Volume 38 Number 1
  11. ^ Anthony, W.A., Cohen, M., Farkas, M, & Gagne, C. (2002). Psychiatric Rehabilitation. 2nd edition. Boston: Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. ISBN 1878512110
  12. ^ Fisher, D. (2005) Empowerment Model of Recovery From Severe Mental Illness An Expert Interview With Daniel B. Fisher, MD, PhD Medscape Psychiatry & Mental Health 10(1), 2005
  13. ^ Davidson, L, O'Connell, M, Tondora, J, Styron, T, and Kangas, K.(2006). The Top Ten Concerns About Recovery Encountered in Mental Health System Transformation Psychiatr Serv 57:640-645
  14. ^ Daly, R. (2007) Tensions Complicate Efforts to Transform MH Systems Psychiatr News July 6, Volume 42, Number 13, page 14
  15. ^ Website of the National Association of State Mental Health Directors Tools In Development: Measuring Recovery at the Individual, Program, and System Levels
  16. ^ Andresen, R., Caputi, P., Oades, L. (2006) Stages of recovery instrument: development of a measure of recovery from serious mental illness. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. Nov-Dec;40(11-12):972-80. PMID 17054565
  17. ^ Theodora Campbell-Orde, M.P.A., Judi Chamberlin, Jenneth Carpenter, M.S.W., & H. Stephen Leff, Ph.D. (2005) Measuring the Promise: A Compendium of Recovery Measures, Volume II
  18. ^ a b Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario (2003) Recovery rediscovered: Implications for the Ontario mental health system
  19. ^ Jacobson N, Greenley D (2001) What is recovery? A conceptual model and explication. Psychiatric Services 52:482-485
  20. ^ US Dept of Health and Human Sciences Consumer-Directed Transformation to a Recovery-Based Mental Health System
  21. ^ NASMHPD/NTAC (2004) Implementing Recovery-based Care: Tangible Guidance for SMHAs
  22. ^ Mary O'Hagan (2004) Recovery in New Zealand: Lessons for Australia? Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health (AeJAMH), Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2004
  23. ^ New Zealand Mental Health Commission website
  24. ^ Mental Health Commission (2002) Recovery Competencies for New Zealand Mental Health Workers
  25. ^ Australian Government National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008
  26. ^ Debra Rickwood (2004) Recovery in Australia: Slowly but surely Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health (AeJAMH), Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2004
  27. ^ NIMHE (2005) Guiding Statement on Recovery.
  28. ^ Scottish Executive (2006) Rights, Relationships and Recovery: The Report of the National Review of Mental Health Nursing in Scotland

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