Support Groups

“I can handle it alone.”

“I don’t need anyone else.”

“People don’t really understand me, so it’s best if I keep my feelings to myself.”

For people with addiction or mental health issues, these thoughts are common. The problems the person faces meld together into a wall, isolating that person from everyone else who might try to help. As therapy progresses and those walls begin to break down, however, the person may still feel a bit isolated. It’s understandable, as it can be hard for family members, as much as they might try, to truly understand what it’s like to live with an addiction or a mental illness. Unless they’ve been through the process on their own, it can be a difficult concept to explain.

That’s why support groups are so very important. Here, the person in treatment can connect with others who really do have the ability to understand. They are going through the exact same process, and they can empathize on a deep and personal level. For people in recovery, these groups can be important tools.

Help in 12-Step Groups

In the field of addiction medicine, 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are the most instantly recognizable form of support group. They might also be the most well-used form of support group, simply because there are so many of these meetings available throughout the United States. The 12-step model that was originally formulated to help people recover from alcohol addictions has now been expanded to assist with addictions to almost everything, including:

  • Crystal meth
  • Gambling
  • Sex addiction
  • Prescription medications
  • Cocaine
  • Work addiction

While the structure and format of the meetings can vary dramatically, as there is no oversight of the groups at a national level, most groups encourage members to admit that they’re powerless over their addictions. Rather than trying to control something that isn’t controllable, they’re asked to rely upon the help and intercession of a higher power, that can provide them with the strength and determination that they lack. In 12-step meetings, people are encouraged to discuss their addiction stories, highlighting the problems they faced and how they worked to overcome those problems, and they’re encouraged to work with another member in a close partnership.

The 12-step model has been proven remarkably effective in addressing a wide variety of addictions. For example, a study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that people who participated in therapy and 12-step meetings once they were released from inpatient programs scored higher on measures of sobriety and functionality than people who did not attend meetings or therapy sessions. Multiple studies have replicated this result, which might explain why so many addiction programs include 12-step meetings as part of routine care. Addiction issues seem to respond to this type of therapy.
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SMART Recovery

While the 12-step model might be the most familiar form of addiction support group, it isn’t the only option available. In fact, an alternate form of support group known as SMART Recovery, has been gaining popularity, and many meetings are held across the country using this format. In the SMART Recovery model, the idea of helplessness is tackled directly. Instead of implying that a person in recovery is helpless over the addiction and that only the intercession of a higher power can reverse the trend, the SMART Recovery model suggests that addicts need to pick up a specific toolkit that they can use when times are tough. By using these specific tools, taught in SMART Recovery books and then reiterated in meetings, addicts can learn to control cravings and keep a relapse from occurring.

One such tool, as described on the SMART Recovery website, is known as ABC. Here, the person is encouraged to identify the following:

  • Activating event. What happened? What would a photograph of the act look like?
  • Belief. When the event occurred, what did the person’s inner voice say?
  • Consequence. What did the person do, and how did the person feel?

The person can then dispute the irrational. Is the belief really true? What other actions could the person take?

This technique is remarkably similar to the techniques therapists use in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy sessions. The person learns to identify an issue, change thinking about that issue and then act differently as a result. This typifies the sort of thinking used in SMART Recovery programs. The person learns to tap into inner power, using scientifically based methods that can influence behavior.
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The LifeRing model is an alternative approach to both the SMART Recovery and 12-step models. Meetings are still used in LifeRing, and people must be motivated to live a sober lifestyle in order to attend, but the approach is slightly tailored.

According to the LifeRing website, there are no steps to follow and no mentors are used in the program. In addition, people aren’t encouraged to appeal to any sort of higher power. Instead, the founders of LifeRing believe that people must follow their own path to beat back their addictions. Members can choose from a variety of approaches to deal with the problems they face, and they can build their own recovery program on their own, or through the use of workbooks and guides that the organization provides. In meetings, they discuss the week prior and they highlight the approaches that did or did not work to help curb cravings and temptations. Members aren’t encouraged to share horror stories of issues that happened long ago. Instead, members attempt to focus on the here and now, talking about recent events.

People who resist the religious elements in 12-step groups, and the rules of SMART Recovery, might benefit from the LifeRing approach. Unfortunately, since the program is relatively new (as it was developed in 2001), meetings in this model might be difficult to find in some parts of the country. The organization does provide online meetings, however, and this might be beneficial for some people.
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Mental Health Support Groups

Mental health support groups may differ from addiction support groups in one main way: Where an addiction support group is often run by peers, a mental health support group is often run by a doctor or a mental health specialist. People with mental health issues sometimes need to learn a significant amount about chemistry, hormones and the body, and these lessons are hard to learn from peers. A medical professional is more qualified to provide these lessons.

Mental health support groups do, however, allow people with the same mental illness to come together and learn from one another. A facilitator may provide a question for the group to answer, and may step in if someone becomes inappropriate or overtly upset, but the participants generally do the majority of speaking in the meeting, sharing their stories and helping one another to understand what it is like to live with that particular issue.

This form of care is becoming a more common component of care for mental illness. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 65.6 percent of people who received traditional care for mental illness in 2008 also received care in a support group. It seems to be a format that people enjoy, and benefit from; therefore, it’s being provided on a more regular basis.

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Support GroupsFinding the Right Group

In order for support groups to be truly beneficial, providing just the sort of hope and assistance that can help a person improve, the person must feel comfortable in that group. Ideally, the person will feel as though the meetings are truly made up of peers who are able to understand the issues and provide real and lasting support. If, by contrast, the person feels like the others in the meetings are strange and unfamiliar, and the rules and regulations seem taxing and too stringent, the person might be more likely to stop going to the meetings altogether. Studies have demonstrated that this affiliation has a large role to play in the effectiveness of support groups. For example, a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that, “Respondents whose individual beliefs better matched those of their primary support groups showed greater levels of group participation, resulting in better outcomes as measured by increased number of days clean and sober.” In other words, people who found the right groups stuck with those groups, and they achieved greater success as a result.

Some people begin attending support group meetings while they’re attending inpatient programs for addiction or a mental illness. When they enter the community, they may look for meetings that are similar to those they’ve become accustomed to. Other people look for support groups on their own, using the Internet or the classified ad section of their local newspaper.

Most support groups don’t require advanced registration, and membership is often free. This means that people can attend one meeting, or even several, and find a different group if the first doesn’t seem quite right. There’s no penalty involved in shopping around and looking for the right fit. Often, this is a completely subjective decision that the person makes on an impulse. The group seems right, so the person stays. But the Mayo Clinic suggests that these questions can be helpful for new members to ask themselves before they settle on one particular meeting:

  • Do I feel comfortable?
  • Is the location easy to get to?
  • Are the meetings held at convenient times?
  • Is this meeting type geared toward my condition?
  • Are the meetings confidential?
  • Do I agree with the ground rules?
  • Do the meetings meet my cultural needs?

It’s perfectly acceptable to be a bit picky when it comes to choosing the right support group. It’s an important decision that can have a great impact on the person’s ability to make lasting changes, so it’s a decision that should be made slowly and cautiously for the best results.

If you have a loved one that you think could benefit from addiction support groups, we can talk to you about staging an intervention to jumpstart the healing process for that person. Contact us today; we are here 24/7 to answer your questions.
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