Starting/Running Support Groups

Some Commonly Asked Questions

Buz Overbeck – Joanie Overbeck

TLC Group – Dallas, TX 1995

Certain questions always seem to come up in the discussion of support groups. In this section, we address some of the more common questions that arise based on our experience and the experience of others in the support group community.

1) “I don’t have any credentials. Can I still run a support group?”

 You don’t have to have credentials to successfully run a support group. What you must have are the qualities and instincts of a good facilitator and the ability to listen to, empathize with, and sensitively draw out the participants.

2) “Is it best to have a Professional involved with my support group?”

There are advantages and disadvantages with professional involvement. A professional can be helpful in providing a meeting place, assisting with facilitation, providing intervention, if and when needed, and being a referral resource for members needing help beyond the group’s capabilities. However, one of the most important benefits to members is that the support group is “for participants by participants” and free from the judgements and expectations of a professional (see question 7.).

Further, it is not always easy to find a professional with intimate experience in the type of issues addressed by the group. In our experience, it is “best” to have access to a professional for advice, guidance and referral capabilities, but keep the support group for participants only.

3) “How many people do I need to start a support group?”

More than one! Support groups may be any size and often will vary with time. We have found that 8-16 people is a good number for one facilitator. Larger groups may be split into smaller groups assuring all members equal opportunity to disclose and share.

4) “Do support groups really work and, if so, why?”

Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests groups do work. Now statistical evidence is appearing as well. Researchers, such as Dr. James Pennebaker at SMU, are finding that disclosing, or “opening up” has distinct and measurable health benefits (1).

5) “Is there any commonality between the many types of support groups?”

In our experience, the one theme running through all support groups regardless of type is loss. Primary or secondary losses are fundamental to any and all tragedies, crises, or transitional events. Further, the commonality to all types of losses is loss of control. Often the most immediate, initial impact of any support group is the reestablishment of personal control which often begins the moment the potential member picks up the phone to make contact. This seems to explain why Grief Counseling and Therapy is so effective in tandem with support group participation.

6) “Are Support Groups for everyone?”

No. It is possible for some people to become so overwhelmed by the tragic experiences of others that they can’t carry on with their own burden. Others may develop feelings of inferiority or failure for not living up to perceived group expectations or peer pressure. Finally, one can join a group before they are ready or too soon after the tragedy and may drop out.

7) “What do participants actually get out of support groups?”

The New Jersey Support Group Clearinghouse staff identified four common characteristics that fundamentally define self-help groups (2):

 a) Mutual Help–People helping people by pooling knowledge and sharing experiences and the striving to help one another.

    b) Peer Support–Members all share a common problem or stressful life situation resulting in a powerful “your are not alone” sense of understanding, often from the very first meeting.

    c) Affordable–Support groups are voluntary, nonprofit groups usually charging no fees. Some Open-Ended groups may charge minimal dues while some Time-Limited groups may charge a fee for books or materials.

    d) Exclusivity–The groups are run by members for members. The locus of control is with the group members rather than with professionals. This assures that the needs addressed will be those of the members rather than their needs as perceived by others.

8) “Can I be sued if anything goes wrong?”

According to Janice Harris Lord, Director of Victim Services for MADD, opinions differ as to the liability of uncredentialed peer counselors, but the general rule is that a helper cannot be made liable for malpractice if there are no recognized standards of practice for him or her to violate (3). Again, it has been our experience that as long as the facilitator is truly “facilitating” and the group focus is on support, liability issues should not arise.


1. Pennebaker, J.W. (1990). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others, New York: William Morrow)

2. E.J. Madara, Maximizing the Potential for Community Self-Help Through Clearinghouse Approaches, in Prevention in Human Services, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1990

3. Janice Lord, Developing An Effective Victim Support Group, NOVA Newsletter, Vol. 12, No. 12, December, 1988


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