Guidelines on how to start a support group

Support groups provide a useful forum for people to share their experiences, access information and increase understanding about a common problem. Here are useful guidelines to help you set up your own support group.

What is the focus of the group?
You need to decide on a clear focus for the group. You will be more successful if you offer a group with a specific focus such as Parents of Children with Turner Syndrome or a Rape Survivor Support Group as opposed to a more general group with an undefined focus.

Ask yourself:

  • What is the problem?
  • Who needs support?
  • Who should attend?
  • What would you like to achieve?

An accessible venue and appropriate time

Choose a venue which is central. If you cannot find a suitable public venue, you could decide to have your meetings at members' homes. Choose a time that would suit most members. It may be necessary to provide childcare facilities.

Getting your group together
Once you have decided on a focus, you need to recruit members. Advertise in the local press, at doctors' surgeries, libraries or at places frequented by prospective members.

Decide on the size of the support group
The size of a support group is important. If your group is too big, some members will never have the opportunity to contribute. Rather split the group into two more manageable groups. If the group is too small, there is a chance that your group will dissolve due to absenteeism and drop out.

Your first meeting
Use the first meeting to find out what people would like to gain from the group. Your group will be more successful if you take these issues into account.

Share the responsibility
Don't take on all the responsibility. You will soon feel overburdened. Elect a coordinator, treasurer and secretary. You could also decide to re-elect people every year. Apart from preventing burn-out, sharing of responsibility will also give more people the chance to become involved in the group.

Prevent drop out
Many support groups stop functioning due to lack of interest. Keep your members active and interested by having a range of activities or topics. Here are some suggestions:

  • Invite guest speakers to some of your meetings.
  • Follow up on your members' suggestions. People can easily become demotivated and feel undermined if one member takes all decisions and responsibility for the group.
  • Give your members a chance to suggest topics and organise meetings. Encourage participation by giving members the opportunity to share their own experiences and knowledge. Depending on the nature of the group, members could bring recipes along or share tips on how they dealt with specific problems.
  • Start a resource centre of relevant literature collected by the members.
  • Organise social events. This will give you a chance to get to know one another in a more relaxed atmosphere. You could also invite members of similar support groups.

Ask for advice

Contact other support groups for advice on what worked well for them. The Depression and Anxiety Support Group has put together a guide on how to start a support group. Contact them on (011) 783 1474/6.

- Ilse Pauw, Health24

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