Starting A Support Group

Need

            The genesis of many a support group has come from this small but powerful word.  Whether it is a carefully researched population analysis (suicide rates in our town have gone up 25% over the last 3 years, and a majority of these are people between the ages of 13 and 23.  Over 64% of these are girls.  Perhaps there is value in establishing a group for teens) or a personal need that exposes a larger deficiency (after I lost my friend to an overdose I was in a very dark place.  When I was able to recognize I needed help, I looked and looked and found nothing.  It was then I decided if I couldn’t find the help, I would just build my own) the magic of support groups lies in building a community around addressing a common need.  Support groups can be, and often are, products of necessity. 

            So it is fitting to first establish a need.  This will be the basis for the group created, and the mission/values of that group.  A statement of need should be clear and concise.  At this point, we are only looking at the problem and how this group will approach that problem.  Are we establishing something grounded in education?  Support?  Advocacy?  Creating a specific framework will contribute to how to group functions, and hopefully the trajectory at which it grows into its purpose. 

Examples of a need statements:

“Teenagers need to be educated around suicide prevention”

“Teenagers need a safe place where they can talk about their emotional state”

“There needs to be a place where people can gather to advocate for more conscious policy around teen suicide” 

            These are all dealing with the same subject from differing viewpoints.  Each viewpoint may shape a group differently, which is why the concept behind a group is so pivotal.

Mission

            With a need established, and hopefully the beginnings of how to approach this need, the budding mission of the group must be contemplated.  A group’s mission must be firmly grounded in the decided upon approach to the need previously identified.  While this can be done in a myriad of ways, we assert that the primary means of learning, supporting, growing and course correction will come from within the group itself.  Thus it is the responsibility of the group to remain connected to the established mission.

Example of need statements with a mission statement:

Need: “Teenagers need to be educated around suicide prevention.” 
Mission: “This group will be dedicated to educating groups of teenagers about depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and coping skills to increase awareness of suicide risk.”

Need: “Teenagers need a safe place where they can talk about their emotional state.”
Mission: “This group will meet to create a safe space for teenagers to fellowship, share emotions, and establish healthy connections with people in their age range.  This social inclusion aims at helping young people recognize positive and negative emotions and understand their effects.”

A strong mission statement can often guide a group’s practice and evolution for years to come.  An ambiguous mission statement can leave both members and facilitators wondering at their purpose.  NOTE: when wording a mission, it is important to provide a goal or statement that connects the group to the world at large.  Both examples have two components: what the group will do, and what will happen as a result of the group’s effort, that ties into the outside world.

Structure

            At this point, there is a need.  There is a mission.  All that is left, is the structure of the group.  After all the work that’s been done, this step seems fairly informal.  Will the group meet daily?  How long should discussion-time be?  Will there be a curriculum for this group, or is it more about open sharing?  Who facilitates this group?  (The word facilitate is used pointedly instead of lead, for more information on the difference, refer to the article here)  Creating some level of structure (or something formally displaying the lack of structure) provides members with direction that can help ease the tension of starting something new. 

The Power of the Icebreaker 

            We assert that the power of support groups (as opposed to other styles of support) is grounded in the building of relationships.  With this in mind, each group is an opportunity for the members to grow toward a common understanding about whatever topic is being discussed.  To truly do good work in any group setting, a level of trust must be achieved that allows people to “come to the table” regarding difficult feelings or strong opinions.  One way to begin creating this space is with activities that promote inclusion and fun.  These often come as the start of a group and are called icebreakers.  An icebreaker can be a game, a shared experience (listening to or watching something together) a structured activity or a check-in discussion.  (you can find a great list of icebreaker ideas free of charge here: https://www.icebreakers.ws/ ) These often serve as lighthearted activities that help bring people together. 

Establishing Norms

              It is important to establish and respect group norms around the budding support group.  First, it is worth mentioning to try and decide what shape this group will take.  Is it aimed at being a closed group, that once X amount of meetings are scheduled, no new members can join?  Is it an open group, where people can come and go as they please?  Is it educational and thus participants need to attend the first group to understand the second?  Refer back to the problem and mission established.  Here is where the group will decide how it wants to look. 

One of the most important and common norm to establish is one around confidentiality.  In creating a safe space, it is important to ensure that people feel that their stories, opinions and perhaps even their feelings will be taken in and not repeated outside of the group unless permission is given.  Without that established safety, it can be very difficult to expose what a member needs from this group.  Other norm examples include: who talks and when, how the group handles disruption, interruption, cell phone use, and many more. 

Note: It is important that group norms are all agreed upon and posted so they can be referred to at any given time.  This adds gravitas to a group, as well as gives each member the right to having a voice.  Even if group norms are established already, it is important to revisit these norms if for no other reason than to check-in.    

Establishing a support group should not be taken lightly.  Building worthwhile and healthy communities to come together around issues that need to be addressed is no small task. If you are part of a group, or alone at this point, know that this task is worthwhile and important.  With some determination, good information and a dash of luck, you’ll be on your way to establishing support not only for you, but for the community of people who share the need you’ve identified.