Support groups are made up of people with common interests and experiences. People who have been or are going through a similar circumstance can do more than sympathize with you—they can truly understand your thoughts, feelings and questions. Often, people who have been through what you’re going through have fewer judgments about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” be feeling or doing than someone who hasn’t. Their understanding and sharing reassures you that you’re not alone. It helps you to affirm that your thoughts and feelings are normal and provides a community that can help you hold your burdens and benefit in meaningful ways from your strengths.

Support groups are at the heart of what is often referred to as “psychosocial” care. People with health conditions, as well as their friends and families, find that support groups improve their sense of well-being. This is why support groups are so universally accepted as an important adjunct to medical care. In fact, in 2007, the Institute of Medicine reported: “Today, it is not possible to deliver good-quality cancer care without addressing patients’ psychosocial health needs.”

And in 2012, the Journal of Clinical Oncology reported: “In addition to improving emotional wellbeing and mental health, provision of psychosocial care has been shown to yield better management of common disease-related symptoms and adverse effects of treatment, such as pain and fatigue.”

Support groups are also a great place to find practical tips and resources; for example, information about medical and non-medical treatments, research, legal resources, clinical trials, medical specialists and financial assistance.

The size of support groups varies depending on the purpose of the group and the needs of the members. Some, such as hospital or organizational groups, may have 20 or more and focus on education or planning. Psychosocial support groups for example, those around cancer or caregiving—typically are small, with 10 or fewer. The small group enables participants to feel safe expressing their feelings and really getting to know one another. Cancer support groups at Gilda’s Desert Cities follow the smaller, more intimate model, as this has been shown to have the most significant personal benefit for the members.

Some people prefer groups that are facilitated by professionals, while others may prefer a more social, get-together type of peer-led environment. While social gatherings keep things more casual, a professional facilitator helps deepen the discussion, ensures everyone is comfortable with their level of sharing, and keeps discussion moving forward.

The important thing to remember is that support groups are not all alike. There are many models, so don’t assume that a particular group will be one way or another. Check it out for yourself. It’s a good idea to attend a group several times to get a broader feel for the people involved and the range of issues addressed before deciding whether it’s right for you. A good support group can become a transformative part of your life, so if there’s one around that pertains to you, take the plunge and check it out!

Litsa Mitchell is a licensed marriage and family therapist and program director at Gilda’s Desert Cities Cancer Support Community. For more information visit www.gildasclubdesertcities.org or call (760) 770.5678.

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