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Treating Addiction
with Help From Peers

The celebrated physician and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, once stated: “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flames by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” Indeed, no man is an island, and human beings are by nature interdependent on one another for their emotional survival. Oftentimes, individuals feel helpless and hopeless when confronted by a crisis. Support groups are a reminder that they are not alone, and that help is just a meeting away. Research corroborates the belief that the peer support mechanism furthers the recovery process. According to two studies conducted in the cancer research field, patients who attended support groups and followed their medical treatments, had a higher longevity and experienced depression and anxiety to a lesser degree than those who did not participate. Many experts maintain that receiving emotional encouragement from others in a support group environment decreases one’s mental distress and anxiety, as well as enhances one’s mood. This in turn boosts the peer group member’s immune system and emotional well-being.

Attending a local peer support group is therapeutic in that it allows individuals undergoing the same illness to open their hearts to others who have traversed similar straits. Typically, support group attendees voice their personal experiences, listen to other members’ stories, express empathetic understanding, and create social networks. Peer groups might focus on specific issues such as coping with a loved one’s suicide or tackle more general problems such as depression. Some support groups help individuals, such as drug addicts, modify their behavior, implement constructive strategies, and sustain healthy change. Other peer groups equip attendees (i.e. relatives of a homicide victim, cancer patients) with psychological support and coping skills. Still others shed light on phases that peer group members, such as those struggling with bereavement, must work through.

There are numerous benefits to be reaped from support groups, including the following:

  • A secure, non-judgmental medium for verbalizing powerful emotions and personal experiences
  • Coping skills that enable participants to manage specific symptoms
  • Valuable information about new medications, the latest treatments, and disease research
  • Learning skills, such as visualization methods, relaxation exercises, and breathing techniques
  • Mutual emotional support and encouragement to look after oneself

Some support groups are disease-specific, while others help individuals who share similar symptoms but might be afflicted with a different illness or condition. Prospective attendees will find peer groups that focus on psychological empowerment and others that are geared towards awareness and advocacy. Finding a support group that best corresponds to their needs and personality and that offers a comfortable setting is pivotal. A multitude of websites offer prospective members information on a garden variety of topics and links to specific organizations that feature an index of peer groups. The following considerations should be taken into account when choosing a support group:

First, future participants must decide whether they prefer the security of a small, intimate peer group or the anonymity of a larger gathering. Secondly, they must determine whether their situation would best be addressed by a lay person who is a disease survivor or a health care professional leading the support group. Mutual support groups or peer groups are informative and informal in nature and are typically run by lay persons who have recovered from and are currently managing their illness or condition. These group leaders contribute a real-life experience to the meetings, which provide empathy and support for individuals coping with ailments, physical and/or psychological in nature. At the meetings, members discuss issues such as symptoms, medication, and cognitive therapy. Oftentimes, a mental health professional is invited as a guest speaker on a topic that is of particular interest to the peer group. Support groups usually take place at a public establishment such as a church or school. Peer groups are usually free of charge, accept donations or charge a very small membership fee that covers photocopying costs, refreshments, or other basic expenditures. Other peer groups are guided by professionals in the health care field such as physicians, therapists, social workers, and nurses who bring an educational element to the session. The meetings, which constitute a form of group therapy, are highly-structured, and a fee is typically required for attendance.

At some support groups, membership is open – meaning that anyone can participate, and that participants are not expected to attend on a regular basis. Other support groups have minimum attendance and formal admission requirements as well as charge membership fees. Peer support involves the mutual giving and receiving of emotional or social encouragement by individuals in recovery from similar mental health ailments or seeking to improve their emotional well-being. Self-help support groups, which fall under the umbrella of peer support and mutual support groups, are usually managed by volunteers and facilitated by members. One type of self-help group is the twelve-step program, also referred to as a peer support group or fellowship. Twelve-step addiction support groups are ubiquitous in the U.S. and are available for a host of addictions ranging from compulsive gambling(Gamblers Anonymous) and eating disorders(Overeaters Anonymous) to substance abuse addictions such as nicotine, painkiller, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine addictions. Some addiction recovery groups are secular in nature, while others are not. There are many addiction support groups that rely on different approaches than the twelve steps and traditions commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous.

Prospective members may also avail themselves of numerous online support groups, which communicate via mailing lists, email, internet forums and bulletin boards, and newsletters. In fact, a recent survey by Yahoo confirmed the existence of more than 30,000 online peer groups covering an extensive array of medical and health topics.

What follows is a non-exhaustive list of support groups available to the public:

  • Addiction/substance abuse
  • Infertility
  • Smoking cessation
  • Adoption
  • Breakups and divorce recovery
  • Caregivers (i.e. caring for Alzheimer’s patients or seniors)
  • Child support
  • Child custody
  • Grief and bereavement
  • Gay/lesbian
  • Compulsive gambling
  • Disabilities (i.e. amputees)
  • Empty nests syndrome
  • Parenting
  • Codependency
  • Transgendered
  • Suicide (i.e. parents of suicide victims; suicide prevention)
  • Sexual addiction
  • Pet loss
  • Rape
  • Sexual abuse
  • Diseases and conditions (i.e. cancer, AIDS, chronic pain, diabetes)
  • Mental health illnesses (i.e. ADD/ADHD, mood disorders, anxiety, depression)
  • Twelve-step (i.e. Al-Anon, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous)
  • Weight loss
  • Women (i.e. Breastfeeding, endometriosis)
  • Organ transplants
  • Veterans
  • Plastic surgery
  • Single parenting

Confidentiality is the hallmark of support groups; members’ privacy is safeguarded through non-disclosure of information shared by participants to non-members. Finally, support groups avoid dispensing unsolicited advice and providing counseling, and while all attendees are afforded an opportunity to share, there is no obligation to do so.

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