Support groups are a great way for people with common goals and experiences to provide each other with encouragement and advice. Usually limited in size to keep them intimate, they offer a safe space for like-minded people to connect, learn from each other, and grow together.
While formal support groups may appear to be a modern occurrence, they actually build upon millennia of supportive functions carried out in families, villages, councils, and other forms of peer support communities. Most of the rules that apply to building a support group haven’t changed much throughout the centuries.
The many types of support groups
Support groups are as diverse as the people they aim to help and the topics they aim to cover. However, there are five main types of support groups which should cover most use cases. Support groups can be used for shared…
- Accountability. Such support groups include communities for entrepreneurs, runners, or writers, where the group acts as a source of motivation and as a way to feel accountable. Beyond sharing challenges and useful resources, it’s common for accountability groups to have a check-in system where members share their goals and what they recently accomplished.
- Experience. Support groups can be built around generally negative experiences (domestic violence, bereavement) or generally positive ones (birth, wedding). Some of these generally positive experiences can be a source of struggle, and different experience groups will aim to address different kinds of experiences.
- Health. Ranging from addictions to eating disorders and long-term conditions or chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer, disease support groups offer a space for both patients and their loved ones to share experiences and information, during and after their illness. Some support groups also offer mental health support to people suffering from depression, anxiety, and other disorders.
- Identity. These include support groups for LGBTQ+ people, people of colour, women and non-binary people, and people from specific cultures or specific religions, often underrepresented ones. Identity support groups offer information, counselling, and sometimes a safe space to make friends or report abuse.
- Interest. Finally, support groups can be built around specific interests or learning goals. For instance, a support group for developers to help each other when coding, or a support group for historians to share resources and ask questions during their research process.
There are countless support groups covering many of these areas, some focused, some broader, some intersectional. However, sometimes, the support group you need doesn’t exist… Yet. If that’s the case, you can act as a catalyser and build the support group you need.
Building a support group
While larger communities may require a lot of work to manage, building your own support group should not become so much work that it cancels out the help you may get out of it. In order to make it as useful as possible to both yourself and your fellow group members, follow these steps when building your own support group.
- Define the support group’s goals and values. The type of support group you want to build (accountability, experience, etc.) is not enough to shape the experience the group will provide. You also need to define its goals and values. Why would people want to join? What should they get out of this support group? A great place to start is your goals and values: since you are building the support group you need, think of yourself as the best user persona.
- Select a limited number of people. The best support groups start small, so they can provide a sense of safety and intimacy, and a space where members can really get to know each other. Think of the first five people you would like to get support from, and who you would feel comfortable providing support to. Use the support group’s type, goals, and values to consider whether these members would benefit from the group.
- Choose a platform and format. The platform and format you choose to use for your support group will shape its culture. Will it be weekly meetups or an online chat group? Where do the people you would like to include in the group usually spend their time? What communication channels would make them feel most comfortable? Which ones are most aligned with your support group’s type, goals, and values?
- Send thoughtful invitations. Once you have a good idea of your support group’s definition, members, platform, and format, it’s time to send invitations. Because you’re starting small, do take the time to make these personal. Explain to each person what the support group is about, why you want them in particular to join, how they would benefit from joining, what will be expected from them in terms of goals, values, platform, and format, and how to join.
- Encourage mindful conversations. Once you have an initial group of members, make sure everyone feels comfortable and understands how to both benefit from and contribute to the support group. For instance, you can let people know that asynchronous communication is fine, and that they can dip in and out whenever they feel like it, or you could share links to resources you think will be helpful to everyone. As you created this support group for yourself as well, make sure to not turn into a community manager: keep it casual, and do use the group to get the support you need.
That’s it. Building a support group is a delicate exercise in communication, awareness, and thoughtfulness, but if you create one to address your own needs, it’s mostly a matter of finding people with the same challenges, goals, and values.