In stressful times we can all do with a little help from our friends. Sometimes, though, our friends cannot provide - or we do not want to ask for - the kind of support required. Mutual support groups based around shared topics such as cancer or addictions have grown rapidly to meet this need. But, can mutual support groups really help people recover from mental health problems? A small but growing body of research suggests they can.
Some of the best evidence comes from a randomised comparison of mutual support group with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) (Bright, Baker & Neimeyer, 1999). This study found that mutual support groups were generally just as effective as trained therapists at alleviating moderate levels of depression.
Chronic mental illness
People with serious mental health problems taking part in a mutual support group were examined by Roberts et al. (1999). They found that participants showed improved psychosocial adjustment over the course of the study. Not only this, but those who helped others were more likely to improve themselves. This is a demonstration of the 'helper therapy' principle - the idea that it is therapeutic for us to help others.
A study by Marmar et al. (1988) looked at women suffering from unresolved grief from the death of their husbands. It compared a mutual support group with brief dynamic psychotherapy. The results showed that both of these treatment were similarly effective.
Importance of mutual support
While this is only a sample of some of the published studies, there is certainly good evidence emerging for the effectiveness of mutual support groups. Why is this important? Mutual support groups are generally much cheaper than one-on-one therapy with a trained professional. The fact that outcomes are equivalent suggests they provide a great alternative.
These types of studies are also particularly important as they tend to show how much helping others can be beneficial. We might assume that the benefits of mutual support are in the receiving, but it does seem that giving support is also a healing activity.
Bright, J.I., Baker, K.D., & Neimeyer, R.A. (1999). Professional and paraprofessional group treatments for depression: a comparison of cognitive-behavioral and mutual support interventions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67(4), 491-501.
Marmar, C.R., Horowitz, M.J., Weiss, D.S., Wilner, N.R., & Kaltreider, N.B. (1988). A controlled trial of brief psychotherapy and mutual-help group treatment of conjugal bereavement. Am J Psychiatry, 145(2), 203-9.
Roberts, L. J., Salem, D., Rappaport, J., Toro, P. A., Luke, D. A., & Seidman, E. (1999). Giving and Receiving Help: Interpersonal Transactions in Mutual-Help Meetings and Psychosocial Adjustment of Members. American Journal of Community Psychology, 27(6), 841-868.