Mutual Help Groups
Since their inception, mutual help groups have functioned as a valuable resource to individuals in need of community support. And while there have been many detrimental consequences associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the most significant impacts I have observed in my clinical work relates to the profound lack of connection many of my clients have experienced. Due to measures such as social distancing, capacity guidelines, and travel restrictions, virtual interactions have become ubiquitous. Now more than ever, providing individuals with safe access to support and connection is critical. Fortunately, the accessibility of virtual help groups has also improved rapidly over the past two years.
In writing this blog, my hope is to inspire readers to consider adding a virtual help group(s) to the cadre of therapeutic resources they presently utilize. If you have yet to attend a support group, please know that there are many wonderful options! While the Evoke curriculum for families suggests members attend at least six meetings spread across these most common and readily accessible options, this list is by no means exhaustive: Co-Dependents Anonymous, Families Anonymous, Al-Anon, Nar-anon, or Alateen. Additionally, after picking a group that offers support around a topic of interest, know that there are many different meeting types and meeting cultures that may feel more or less comfortable for you--it is ok to shop around! Finally, please also consider attending one of the weekly parent support groups that Evoke facilitates, as these meetings features present families and recent alumni families that are able to share stories and provide connection.
Throughout my clinical experiences I have attended a wide variety of mutual support groups, and have discovered a few central aspects as to why I recommend them to all of the families I support. Despite each type of group having unique benefits, overall, I find that group attendees are typically interested in hearing/sharing their stories and value connection with others who might understand the circumstances which brought them to that specific meeting. I believe that having access to such communities is critically important for maintaining motivation when experiencing change at the personal and/or family levels. On countless occasions, I’ve heard the phrase, “I’m just so relieved to not feel alone in this,” offered, and this seems to be one of the primary boons that brings attendees back each week. This helps us feel seen, supported, and understood.
When I pull back my lens and consider the family/guardian perspective, the most difficult-to-replicate element of treatment that children experience, that family members cannot, is the group support. When participants discuss therapeutic challenges in the field, they turn to their peers for connection as they process their thoughts and feelings. Parents, guardians, and siblings often express feeling like they are alone and have no one to turn to, outside of the family, who might understand and empathize with them. Any of the aforementioned groups suggested serve as incredible supports for families--they provide loved ones with a forum to communicate and discuss their struggles with others who “get it.”
On a personal note, in having family members who struggle with addiction, I’ve felt an increase in comfort in sharing those parts of my personal story with others who have lived through similar experiences, and I have found it to be more connecting listening to other participants share similar experiences. I experienced relief, acceptance, and understanding in ways that were helpful and encouraging, especially when considering how I hoped to maintain healthy boundaries regarding my family member’s use. Again, even after studying the benefits of group support in college, the reality didn’t fully set in until after finding a support group that fit my needs… I noticed my fear, anxiety, and perceived isolation dissipate quickly.
Additionally, in being one of the facilitators of Evoke’s weekly online support groups, I’ve been consistently humbled by the emotion that many parents bring to these meetings. Supporting a space for parents to express common fears and challenges related to their children’s unhealthy coping skills--particularly with substance use and self-harm--has been an honor. Furthermore, despite describing such deep and painful experiences, the parents who attend these meetings almost always express feeling better after having done so, and in our subsequent weekly calls, I am often met with the refrain, “I’m just so relieved not to feel alone in this.”
A final reflection I’d like to offer connects to the importance of having a strong support network in order to maintain change. When considering change, many schools of thought emphasize how environmental norms impact buy-in and self-efficacy. In wilderness therapy, participants experience this inherently given that they spend the course of treatment living with a group of peers. With that said, parents and family members don’t have that same level of access to community support and understanding. By attending mutual support groups, parents and family members are able to receive support and acknowledgement for their compassion, empathy, and care, and I believe they become better equipped to sustain their influence on their loved ones in wilderness. Support groups offer family members a safe place to share about the difficulties of supporting loved ones through different challenges, to access community empathy and understanding, and to gain new perspectives. By attending these meetings, I feel that family members gain resiliency, improve their understanding of how to better meet their own needs as individuals, and sustain healthier environmental norms that can then positively impact their loved ones’ desire to change.
Again, if you are considering attending a mutual support group, I hope you feel more encouraged to do so after reading this blog. And please always feel free to coordinate with your primary therapist here at Evoke about which type of group might be most helpful to your family situation!