Understanding support groups


Support group

When facing a major illness or stressful life change, you don’t have to do it alone. A support group may help.

Support groups bring together people facing similar issues - whether that’s illness, relationship problems or something else – to share experiences and advice. Many people find it helpful just getting to talk with other people going through similar situations.

While not everyone wants or needs support beyond that offered by family or friends, it may be helpful to turn to others outside your immediate circle. A support group may help you cope better and feel less isolated as you make connections with others facing similar (but sometimes different) challenges. A support group shouldn’t replace your usual medical care, but it can be a wonderful resource to help you cope.

What is a support group and how does it work?

A support group is a gathering of people who share a common health concern or interest. Groups usually focus on a specific situation or condition e.g. bowel cancer, heart disease, care giving etc. but some might be slightly broader.

Support groups aren’t the same as group therapy sessions. Group therapy is a formal type of mental health treatment that brings several people together with similar conditions under the guidance of a trained mental health provider.

Support groups come in a variety of formats and may be led professional facilitators - such as a nurse, social worker or psychologist - or by interested group members or volunteers.

Some groups are educational and structured e.g. the group facilitator may invite a guest speaker to talk on a topic related to the group’s need or they may bring an activity to do that helps guide and deepen discussion. Some support groups emphasise emotional support and shared experiences. Others may be a combination of the two. Groups may be closed (by invite only) or time limited e.g. weekly for five weeks, while others can be open groups and accessed for as long as a person wants.  Regardless of the format, support groups should provide a safe and supportive environment for participants.

What are the benefits of support groups?

Members of a support usually share their personal experiences and offer one another emotional comfort and support. They may also offer practical advice and tips to help you cope with the situation. Benefits of participating in support groups may include:

  • ·         Feeling less lonely, isolated or judged
  • ·         Gaining a sense of empowerment and control
  • ·         Improving coping skills and sense of adjustment
  • ·         Talking openly and honestly about your feelings
  • ·         Reducing distress, depression or anxiety
  • ·         Developing a clearer understanding of what to expect with your situation
  • ·         Getting practical advice or information about treatment options
  • ·         Comparing notes about resources, such as doctors or complimentary services
  • ·         Making connections and friendships.

I’m not sure about support groups – what other options are there?

We understand the apprehension some people may feel about sharing the ups and downs of their cancer journey face-to-face with other people. For those uncomfortable with this type of group, online support or telephone groups maybe a good alternative. For example, Leukaemia & Blood Cancer NZ offers a number of Facebook support groups and the Cancer Society offers CancerChatNZ, an online forum, and Cancer Connect NZ which links people with a trained volunteer who has also had cancer. Our Cancer Society liaison nurses are also happy to provide 1:1 support.

If you are unsure or have any questions, give us a call on 0800 22 77 44 and one of our nurses can help. 

To see the support groups offered by the Waikato/Bay of Plenty Cancer Society, visit our What's On page.

*Information partially sourced from the Mayo Clinic.