Self-help for patients and their families

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Self-help groups are voluntary non-profit associations comprised of people who share the same medical condition, mental problems, or life situation. The activities of self-help groups are focused on delivering help to those who participate in them.

These can be either persons struggling with a life challenge, or the families of those affected. Members of a group create a community and decide themselves about the timetable of meetings, the agenda, and goals. Most self-help groups are operated entirely by non-professionals, although some meetings are attended by invited professionals, or a professional initiates the founding of a group.


Self-help groups are particularly focused on counteracting social isolation, marginalisation, or stigmatisation.

People who attend the meetings of a self-help group experience relief and support, learn how to identify, address, and overcome life challenges. They share experiences and information about problem-solving strategies.

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Self-help groups may exert a very positive impact on their members because people tend to become deeply emotionally engaged and willing to share "first-hand" experiences, without having to rely on theoretical knowledge or expertise.

What types of self-help groups are there?

A self-help group can be affiliated to healthcare or social welfare institutions without having a legal personality of its own. Being a member of a self-help group, people struggling with mental disorders or their families can attend meetings with healthcare professionals: psychiatrists, psychologists, or therapists.

Meetings are a good opportunity for patients or family members to exchange experiences. It is important to disclose and name emotions accompanying the experience of a disease, offer mutual support and share knowledge about mental diseases. Group meetings can be either psycho-educational, social, or therapeutic, depending on the needs of the attending members. A group can evolve into an independent legal entity – an association or a society.

Self-help groups are typically established outside formal institutions offering professional therapy and assistance to patients. With time, an initially informal group may evolve into an independent formal and legal entity (society, association).

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One such example is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) mutual-aid fellowship and its 12-Step Recovery Program implemented across many countries and continents. Self-help groups inspired by the 12-Step Recovery Program are currently established not only by alcoholics (AA) and their families (wives – Al-Anon, children – Alateen), but also by people struggling with all sorts of addictions attributed to their emotional problems. There are multiple self-help groups of this kind, all sharing the anonymity principle (anonymous alcoholics, drug addicts, smokers, sex addicts, people suffering from compulsive overeating, gamblers, net addicts, etc.). The 12 Steps program includes a set of recommendations which – if followed persistently – may help overcome addiction.

Members of self-help groups attend meetings to share their stories and experiences on fighting addiction and overcoming obstacles, in order to support each other in the recovery process. A sponsor has an important role to play in AA groups – this is an individual who has been living in sobriety or has controlled their behaviour (e.g. eating disorders) over a long period of time, and has vast experience in coping with temptations and overcoming difficulties.

Finally, families of people with mental disorders or individuals with a history of mental condition may come together and decide to establish and operate – within the framework of a non-governmental organization (association, foundation), with or without involvement of healthcare professionals – a community centre for social support, rehabilitation and occupational activation (occupational therapy workshops, occupational support centres, clubhouses, supervised apartments) for mentally ill or disabled.

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