Self-Help Groups

Diverse group of people sitting on sofas for group meetingSelf-help groups, also sometimes referred to as mutual-help groups, are groups in which members share the same issue, condition, or situation and thus are in a position to provide help and support to each other. A variety of self-help groups exist to help people address a wide range of issues, including emotional concerns, physical disabilities, eating and food issues, addiction, bereavement, and illness.

What Are Self-Help Groups?

Self-help groups are self-governing groups made up of individuals who share the same or a similar concern or issue. Members provide emotional support and advice to each other. Typically membership is free or involves only a minimal fee or donation. The belief behind self-help groups is that the shared experience of group members is highly valuable in the promotion of understanding and healing.

The first self-help group, Alcoholics Anonymous, was developed in 1935 to meet a need for better treatment, as many felt that medical professionals at the time were not adequately treating alcoholism. Today AA and other 12-step programs are among the most popular type of self-help organization.

Self-help groups became more prevalent in the 1960s, partly due to the influence of the Civil Rights Movement, which showed how powerful people can be when they join forces and support each other. Over the next few decades, the popularity of self-help groups continued to increase to the extent that groups became available for every major medical disease in addition to many mental health issues. In the 1990s, online self-help groups became available, which facilitated communication between people regardless of location or distance. Self-help groups, both online and in person, are currently available around the world, and they are largely considered to be benefical and efficient supplements to medical and mental health treatment.

Types of Self-Help Groups

Several different types of self-help groups exist. Some focus on helping members eliminate or control a behavior that is causing them concern, affecting their daily function, or is otherwise harmful. Recovery self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and SMART Recovery are examples of this type of organization. Others, such as the group Parents without Partners, offer support to those who share a common stressful situation, aiming to reduce this stress by allowing members to share coping strategies and advice with each other. Some self-help groups are survival-oriented, meaning that they are comprised of members who have experienced stigma or discrimination. Other self-help groups might focus on personal growth. Members of these groups might not necessarily address a particular problem but instead focus on helping and encouraging each other to live happier, healthier lives. There are also groups specifically designed for family members of individuals experiencing a particular issue.

Many self-help groups value anonymity, an important aspect that allows members to feel safe openly sharing their personal experiences.

Some may believe self-help groups to be similar to support groups, but the two differ in that support groups are led by a trained professional who is in charge of managing the group.

Self-Help Groups and Mental Health

Self-help groups can be very helpful for those with mental health issues because they can provide a sense of community and belonging and because the confidental environment, made up of others who have experienced similar concerns, may allow people to more freely share without fear of judgment or recrimination. Attending self-help meetings has also been shown to promote increased self-esteem, as members may begin to feel better about themselves after having meaningful interactions with peers and receiving positive feedback from other group members.

Self-help groups have been found to have significant benefits for people dealing with substance use issues, bereavement, and chronic mental health issues specifically. However, while self-help groups have been shown to have positive effects on those who participate in them, they are not typically considered to be a form of therapy or treatment because they are not led by a trained professional. It is often advised that individuals experiencing a mental health concern attend self-help groups as a supplement to therapy or other treatment rather than as a primary intervention.

When a person experiences a mental health concern, attending a self-help group may be better used as an adjunct to therapy or another type of treatment, rather than as a primary intervention.

Critiques of Self-Help Groups

Though self-help groups can certainly be useful to many, these groups have also faced some criticism. One potential issue is that many self-help groups have not been scientifically researched. The techniques used in any given group are not monitored by professionals and therefore may not be particularly effective, or even safe. In the case of one self-help spiritual retreat, for example, three people died and eighteen other individuals were hospitalized with a variety of injuries.

People in a self-help group may experience peer pressure that compels them to follow the advice of other group members, even when doing so seems risky or problematic. Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically, has been criticized for fostering an environment in which its longtime members can easily take advantage of newcomers, a phenomenon known as “13th-stepping.”


  1. Ford-Martin, P. (n.d.). Self-help groups: Overview, benefits, results. Retrieved from
  2. Levy, L.H. (1976). Self-help groups: Types and psychological processes. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 12(3), p. 310-322.
  3. McGuiness, K. (2011). The 13th step: People who prey on newcomers. The Fix. Retrieved from
  4. Oka, T., & Borkman, T. (n.d.). The history, concepts and theories of self-help groups: From an international perspective. Retrieved from
  5. Self-help groups: Are they effective? (n.d.). Retrieved from
  6. Szalavitz, M. (2014). How to protect yourself against bad self-help. Scientific American. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 11-4-2016

  • Leave a Comment
  • Judy


    July 27th, 2017 at 4:58 AM

    I trained initially in Pathology but changed to Psychiatry after recognizing the importance of emotional health and well-being to people’s physical health.

  • Hampson


    September 11th, 2017 at 8:08 PM

    I suffer with B.I.I.D. (body integrity identity disorder, or apotemnophilia). Is there a group in New York City directed to this rare proclivity? If so, please put me in in touch with it. Or have individuals contact me by e-mail.

    Thank you!

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