Self-Help Movement

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SELF-HELP MOVEMENT, the development of a philosophy and groups based on this philosophy whereby individuals who share like problems or situations work together to understand and/or improve their situations. The member-owned and -operated groups offer participants experiential knowledge, information, education, and emotional support. Leadership comes from the group's membership. These leaders are not paid, and membership is free or nominal. Groups may also provide material aid and/or social advocacy.

Historical Overview

The self-help movement began with the establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. In terms of treating alcoholics, the group's accomplishments far exceeded those of the medical profession. Although the success of Alcoholics Anonymous was impressive, other groups did not develop in abundance until after World War II.

The civil rights movement in the 1960s introduced more people to the power of group initiatives. By the 1970s, people moved toward small-group efforts where individuals could work together in more intimate, immediate environments and on problems more specific to small groups. At the time, the government was also being challenged for its continually increasing public expenditures and its inefficiency. The response to this was a desire for less spending and more self-advocacy. Self-help groups filled the bill.

In 1976, self-help groups appeared to come into their own. Books such as Support Systems and Mutual Help: Multi-disciplinary Explorations, edited by Gerald Caplan and Marie Killilea, and The Strength in Us: Self-Help Groups in the Modern World, edited by Alfred H. Katz and Eugene I. Bender, were published, and people became more aware of the value of the mutual support available to participants in self-help groups. This movement was not taking place only in the United States; the number of self-help groups was also expanding in western Europe and Japan.

By the 1980s, self-help clearinghouses had begun to pop up. They not only offered information as to how to locate appropriate groups but also provided information on how to begin a new group. Also during the 1980s, international networks of self-help support groups were created. An outgrowth of these groups was an international conference held in 1992 in Ottawa, Canada. From this meeting came a book of compiled papers including ones from eastern Europe, Japan, Israel, and Hong Kong.

In the 1990s, online self-help became an alternative avenue for support. Individual Web sites for both specific self-help groups and online clearinghouses were created for those seeking help and/or direction.

Attendance at self-help meetings remained strong into the twenty-first century. In the United States alone, over 25 million people had attended over 400 different types of self-help groups by the early 2000s. By that time, there were over 500,000 active self-help groups in the United States.

Positives and Negatives of Self-Help Groups

There are many reasons that self-help groups are so valuable to their participants. Most obviously the groups offer information and education about specific problems or situations and how to deal with them. Possibly the most valuable information offered is experiential. Here, members share how they have coped or are coping with their problems or situations. What the members often offer is a different perspective from what one might receive with professional help. Certainly, in many cases, more empathy is in evidence. A valuable addition to this is that, as information is shared, the sharers benefit as well, as they deepen their own personal understanding and commitment. In addition, as the members interact, new social bonds may form, allowing individuals to establish a new network of friends who have like problems or situations.

Another valuable component offered by many self-help groups is social advocacy. Through the group's efforts, members establish an avenue to spread understanding of their specific concern.

Online self-help groups offer their own sets of positives and negatives. On the positive side, they offer individuals who are housebound, such as agoraphobics (people who fear open or public places) and people with physical disabilities, an opportunity to participate in a group. Similarly, people with time constraints due to work schedules and/or child-care problems, as well as those who lack transportation, may have a difficult time attending a meeting in person, and online groups can offer these people the support they need—often on a twenty-four-hour-aday basis—without their having to leave home. In addition, people with certain rare diseases or unusual problems who have difficulty pulling together enough people in a given area to attend a group meeting can cover a huge area online, making it easier to find enough people to establish a group. Another plus is that online self-help groups offer a certain degree of anonymity for those who are uncomfortable discussing their problems in a more public forum.

A negative is that online groups offer a somewhat less personal environment. In addition, another obvious drawback is that those without computers or who are not computer literate are not able to participate.

Areas of Support

Self-help groups offer help, support, and insight in a variety of areas. Mental health, one of the largest areas, includes groups that support those suffering with problems such as manic depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, and compulsive disorders. There are also groups offering support to family members of people with these kinds of problems. Illnesses such as diabetes, muscular sclerosis, cancer, AIDS, and chronic pain disorders are another large arena where many self-help groups are available. Problems of addiction such as alcohol, gambling, and narcotics are also dealt with well through the means of self-help groups.

Another large segment consists of weight management groups. These groups support people with problems such as obesity, compulsive overeating, bulimia, and anorexia. In addition, there are groups that deal with temporary emotional problems such as bereavement due to the loss of a loved one, divorce, or the stress that can result from a catastrophic event such as that which occurred on 11 September 2001. Another large category consists of groups in which the members have a common challenge in their lives with which they must deal. Examples of such groups include Parents without Partners, Mothers of Twins, and various women's, caregiver, and senior citizen support groups.

Numerous studies have been conducted to determine the value of various types of self-help groups. Consistently, studies have shown that these groups have been extremely helpful for the majority of those who commit to attend meetings and participate. Oftentimes, group members find far greater success with these groups than they do with professional care. Even in studies that have indicated equal success between the results of self-help group support and the care of a professional, it has been shown that there is still an advantage to taking the self-help route in that the cost is far less than that of professional care.


"About Online Self-Help." Making Daughters Safe Again. Available at˜ns4.html.

Caplan, Gerald, and Marie Killilea, eds. Support Systems and Mutual Help: Multidisciplinary Explorations. New York: Grune and Stratton, 1976.

Katz, Alfred H., and Eugene I. Bender, eds. The Strength in Us: Self-Help Groups in the Modern World. New York: New Viewpoints, 1976.

Kyrouz, Elaina M., and Keith Humphreys. "Research on Self Help/Mutual Aid Groups." Available at

Oka, Tomofumi, and Thomasina Borkman. "The History, Concepts, and Theories of Self-Help Groups: From an International Perspective." Available at˜t-oka/papers/2000/jjot.html.