OncoLog

 

From OncoLog, April 2013, Vol. 58, No. 4

House Call: Benefits of In-Person Support Groups
Face-to-face contact helps people cope with chronic illness

Support groups help people connect with others going through similar health situations. Support groups also serve as discussion forums for people with chronic illnesses as well as their family members or other caregivers. Sharing experiences with people who have a common illness often helps relieve the emotional stress associated with a chronic disease.

Unlike online or telephone support groups, in-person support groups allow members to communicate with more than just words. Stephen Collazo, a social work counselor in the Department of Social Work at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said he often sees support group members express sympathy with a look, nod, or furrow of the brow. “And that’s different from just typing, ‘I feel sorry for you,’” he said.

Face-to-face meetings can help group members develop personal connections that are more difficult to establish in online groups, according to Marisa Mir, a program coordinator with the Anderson Network, which is a program of the Department of Volunteer Services. “Some people need visual responses more than others,” she said. “They want to see other people and be able to connect with them.”

A typical in-person support group session can have about 10 people and lasts an hour. Most support groups are led by a social worker, counselor, or other health care professional who guides the group through a discussion. Social workers are trained to help group members process ideas or emotions together so that the members benefit from each other’s experiences.

Types of support groups

The two most common types of in-person support groups are open and closed groups. Open support groups are not limited to a predetermined number of sessions, and people are not required to register beforehand. Discussion topics in open support groups usually are decided by the group members. The group leader then asks open-ended questions and guides the discussion to help the members overcome whatever emotional or coping issues they have. Many patients attend open group sessions to listen to other people’s experiences or to share their own. “It’s very therapeutic and beneficial for them,” Mr. Collazo said. “There’s a lot of value to patients’ being able to tell their story and then hear other group members say, ‘We understand what you are going through, and we get it. You are not alone in this, and you are not weird for having these thoughts.’”

Unlike an open support group, a closed support group can be restricted by the number of sessions or when members can join the group. Moreover, closed support groups usually require people wanting to attend the sessions to register with the group leader. Most closed support groups are highly structured, and social workers often can provide focused clinical counseling to the group members.

Some open support groups are focused on educating group members about their illnesses and concerns. In such groups, a speaker (usually a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional) is brought in to talk about some aspect of the illness in the first half of the session, and the group leader guides a discussion about the topic in the second half.

Some support groups are for patients’ families rather than the patients themselves. One such group at MD Anderson is CLIMB (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery), a support group for children who have parents with cancer. “You see the kids come in, and they don’t really know each other. You help them break down those barriers to build cohesion, and you start to work on processing questions like, ‘What does it mean that my mom has cancer?’” Mr. Collazo said. “Seeing these little kids open up is fascinating. It’s really interesting seeing the group transform from people who don’t know each other into a supporting element for each other.”

Benefits of support groups

There’s more to support groups than just the “feel-good” aspect. Research has shown that people with chronic illnesses and inadequate social support have worse health outcomes than those who have adequate emotional and psychological support. Support group members can build connections and gain such support through interactions with each other.

If you are affected by a chronic illness and are looking for a support group, your physician might be able to provide information about support groups in your area. Nonprofit groups like the American Cancer Society and the American Liver Foundation also may have information about local support groups.

– M. Sala

For more information, ask your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org, visit the Anderson Network at www.mdanderson.org/andersonnetwork or www.facebook.com/AndersonNetwork, or visit healthfinder.gov/FindServices/SearchContext.aspx?topic=833.

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