Mutual Help Groups for Mental Health Problems are Effective

together, self help

A mutual help group is defined as a group of people sharing a similar problem, who meet regularly to exchange information and to give and receive psychological support, like Alcohol Anonymous. Traditionally, groups meet face to face, but internetbased groups have expanded rapidly in recent years.

In a recently published review of 12 studies meeting strict inclusion criteria mutual help groups provide limited but promising evidence that mutual help groups benefit people with three types of problems: chronic mental illness, depression/anxiety, and bereavement.

Seven of the 12 studies reported some positive changes in mental health for group members. The strongest findings come from two randomized studies showing that the outcomes of mutual help groups were equivalent to those of established, more costly, professionally provided psychological interventions. Five of the 12 studies found no differences in mental health outcomes between mutual help group members and non-members; no studies showed any evidence of negative effects. There was no indication that mutual help groups were beneficial for certain types of problems but not others.

Strenghts of mutual help groups:

  • they utilize support from people who have gone through similar difficulties and participants therefore can easily empathize with each other
  • This may compensate for deficiencies in people’s natural support networks
  • group members possess ‘‘experiential knowledge’’, in contrast to the professional knowledge of service providers

Mutual Self Help groups and Depression
One excellent trial compared group behavioral therapy (CBT) and mutual help groups for depression, both professionally and non-professionally (peer) led. Self-report measures as well as ratings by an independent clinician were used to assess the change between before and after treatment. Participants improved on all measures, the outcomes of the mutual help groups being equivalent to those of the CBT groups, and peer leaders were as effective as professional therapists. Peer led groups are far more inexpensive than professional led groups.
In this group the only Internet based study of internet support groups was included. They used a longitudinal design to assess depressive symptoms over time. One-third of members showed a resolution of depressive symptoms with more frequent users more likely to improve (after adjusting for a number of other variables). Control group was lacking.
The third study included in the depression group studied self-help groups for adults hospitalized for unipolar or bipolar depression. Alas due to methodological flaws no conclusion can be drawn from this trial.
So for depression, mutual self help groups might be of benefit.

Evidence for efficacy of mutual self help groups is still in it’s infancy, what do you think?

The studies varied in terms of design quality and reporting of results. More high-quality outcome research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of mutual help groups across the spectrum of mental health problems
Nancy Pistrang, Chris Barker, Keith Humphreys (2008). Mutual Help Groups for Mental Health Problems: A Review of Effectiveness Studies American Journal of Community Psychology, 42 (1-2), 110-121 DOI: 10.1007/s10464-008-9181-0