Getting the Group You Need


In an ideal world, we would all have friends and family members who would provide the support we needed whenever we needed it. In an ideal world, we would have no need for self-help groups or support groups. The reality, however, is that at times most of us need a type of support that requires acceptance from others who are struggling with a similar issue.

These groups are not therapy groups, although they can be therapeutic. They are also not necessarily educational groups, although some use education as a tool to attract members. The type of groups we are talking about are emotional support groups, which can offer ideas for effective ways to deal with the circumstances people face.

A comment I received last week on a previous blog post (“Support, What Do You Think It’s Good For?”) identified a sense of frustration about the lack of resources available for forming a group for people facing anxiety, depression, and living with diabetes in St. Louis. The reader asked her health-care provider about starting a group and received the response that their wouldn’t be any interest. But I can tell you from my experience over the last 25 years that people are interested in having a place where they can come and talk about their struggles with these issues. People have a need to be in an environment that is nonjudgmental and supportive, where they can feel encouraged to go another day, week, or month and know that someone else cares about how they are doing.

Here’s the bind: Most groups need a leader, someone to coordinate meetings, and a place where meetings can be held. Coming up with these elements takes time, money, and a building. Most of the time, this responsibility ends up being delegated to a diabetes educator who already works full-time and often doesn’t necessarily have the skills to facilitate a group that focuses on emotional issues. The result is that the group usually shifts from being an emotional support group to an educational group, where you are not likely to get what you are really looking for. These groups also have a tendency to wax and wane in terms of how many people attend, so often people lose interest and the group ends. This is not a message about the value of the group, but about the nature of open-ended educational groups.

There are also groups that are more specific to the issues the reader mentioned in her comment, but these are usually therapy groups led by a mental health therapist, and they have a cost. They are also usually time-limited, meaning that they will end after a certain period of time. This, too, is not exactly what it sounds like people who want a support group are looking for.

The dilemma is clear: They don’t make what you want, but what you want is a good idea and someone should make it. There are a few programs in the country where you can get something like the support group the reader is looking for. Dr. William Polonsky’s Diabetes Behavioral Institute is starting some programs like this in San Diego. The International Diabetes Center in Minneapolis is also offering support groups, and some hospitals offer groups, but most are educational rather than emotional support.

In St. Louis, you might contact Washington University and their diabetes program to ask what they offer. There is a program called The Diabetes Initiative that may have some possibilities .

The other option may be to do what the reader was suggesting, which is to get some help from someone to start your own group. You could contact a local university and ask them about graduate students in either psychology or social work who are interested in gaining extra experience in facilitating a group. University students may have enough training to help in this regard and often have good energy for it; in addition, they may be supervised by a professor who can help deal with any problems. Then, get the word out to diabetes educators around the city so they can send some people your way. Lastly, a church is likely to have space that you could discuss using, or a local clinic might possibly be willing to spare some space in the evening.

Get creative—there is no magic to solving this problem, but if your energy is good, the best support group is the one you create for yourself. I’d be glad to help if you have more questions.

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Joe Nelson: Joe is a psychotherapist in private practice in Minnesota, where he specializes in the psychology of chronic disease and sexual problems and works with couples, families, children, and teens. He has been a Licensed Psychologist since 1985 and has earned a master’s degree from St. Mary’s College Winona, a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, and an associate’s degree in human services from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Joe has worked with troubled youth in Chicago and Minnesota and on a special project on Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He was the first social worker hired by an affiliate of the American Diabetes Association. He worked at the International Diabetes Center for 20 years, directing psychological services there for 12 years. A Certified Sex Therapist, Joe co-developed the Sexual Health Center at Park Nicollet Clinic.

Having practiced meditation for over 30 years, Joe offers instruction in mindfulness-based meditation to patients in groups and as individuals. Joe is married, has a 23-year-old daughter, and enjoys scuba diving, motorcycling, golf, and being outdoors doing almost anything.

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