Someone Like Me: Women helping women through self-help groups

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by Jennifer Poole

At last count, the Ca nadian Council on Social Development estimated that more than one million Canadians are active in self-help/mutual support groups. Most are women.

Whatever we are dealing with, be it cancer, depression, arthritis, caregiving or parenting, often one of our first instincts is to talk to someone who's been there too, who knows what it's like. We call our friends, our sisters, our mothers and look to our networks for that special kind of peer support, the kind that provides us with information, advice and hope.

In Canada more and more women look to self-help/mutual support groups. Women help each other in coffee shops, community centres, church basements and over the Internet. Women help each other to battle breast cancer, to deal with depression and to stop smoking. They do it every day and in every community across the nation.

Unfortunately, the term self-help is somewhat misleading, conjuring up everything from relationship manuals to alternative medicine. A self-help group is voluntary, on-going, non-profit and led by people "who have been there too". These leaders are regular people: mothers, volunteers, seniors and youth, people whose only qualification is their personal experience of a particular issue like arthritis, abuse or menopause.

Self-help groups are not therapy groups. They are informal networks of individuals who share a common issue or life situation. Members get together either in person, over the phone, or in chat rooms on the Internet. They talk. They share information. They create hope.

Does Self-help Help?

"Active participants report higher levels of life satisfaction, reduced treatment utilization, increased self-esteem, greater coping skills and a more positive attitude toward their problem," discovered Bryan Hyndman in his study of the groups.

Hyndman, from the Centre for Health Promotion at the University of Toronto, found that group members with chronic mental illness spend fewer days in hospital, women with metastatic breast cancer may live longer, and caregivers may have better interpersonal skills, less anger towards their care recipient, and a decrease in depression.

There are limitations however. Self-help groups are not for every woman, and they are certainly not the only 'answer'. These groups are designed to complement, not replace, other vital supports including counselling, social networks and professionally-led groups.

You Know Me

Evidently, the glue that binds a group together is the feeling of no longer being alone.

"Fifteen people came here to my house for the first meeting. It was a magical thing. It was as if everyone has been looking for something like this. There was an automatic bond," said one participant.

"I really don't know how to put it into words, but everybody just felt, 'Oh, you know me and you know what I'm going through'."

Across Canada, there are self-help centres set up to help individuals find or form these local groups, providing information and referral, training and consultation on how to start groups, as well as resources and moral support. The largest is the Self-Help Centre of Greater Toronto, an affiliate of the Centre for Health Promotion, University of Toronto.

At the centre, staff and volunteers assist in the development of close to 100 groups annually, fielding thousands of requests for support and information, providing monthly workshops on how to start groups, coordinating annual conferences and playing host to three peer support projects.

When we meet someone who has been there too, who has lived through the experience we now face be it caregiving, depression or becoming a mother for the first time we find that special kind of support. This is the essence of self-help.

Self-Help Awareness Week in Ontario will be held from November 16 to 21, 1998.

For more information on this and to find out about groups in your area, contact:

Self-Help Resource Centre of Greater Toronto
Suite 219, 40 Orchard View Blvd.
Toronto, ON M4S 2W4
Tel: (416) 487-4355 Fax: (416) 487-0344
E-mail: fcsn@sympatico.ca
Jennifer Poole, MSW is Coordinator of the Ontario Self-Help Network.