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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Support Groups

Q. I am a nurse educator. Can you give me some statistics/information on support groups? Do they increase survival rates? Do they decrease hospitalizations and emergency room visits? We need this information for our support groups.

A. It's difficult to answer your question without knowing more about the kind of support groups you have in mind-and for what conditions. There are peer support groups and professionally-led support groups; support groups with a 12-step philosophy and those run on an educational model; and there are support groups that involve family members or multiple families. There are support groups for substance abusers, individuals with schizophrenia, and those with Alzheimer's Disease--and all may use different models of treatment.

With respect to how such groups affect hospitalization and clinical outcome, you might want to see the article entitled "Family Interventions for Schizophrenia", by Dixon and Lehman (Schizophrenia Bulletin 21:631-43, 1995). This reviews the evidence for the efficacy of psychoeducational family interventions in the treatment of schizophrenia. Some of the interventions involved education, behavioral problem solving, family support, and crisis management. Some interventions were conducted with individual families, while others involved groups of families; some included the identified patient while others did not. Overall, the authors found that "...there is a consistent and robust effect of family interventions in delaying, if not preventing, relapse."

There is also evidence that such interventions improve patients' functioning and family well-being. With respect to substance abusers, Glanter et al studied the effects of a day program that combined peer-led and professional treatment of cocaine abusers (Hospital and Community Psychiatry, July 1993). The study found that 39% of patients had an acceptable treatment outcome, which was defined as having three successive clean urine drug tests-but there was no control group against which to measure success.

You may also want to read the article on drop-in centers run by mental health consumers (Kaufmann et al, Hospital & Commnity Services, July 1993). This study did not look at clinical outcomes, but did find that many users of these centers appreciated the services. As one consumer put it, "People who come have a common set of experiences, which makes communication more enjoyable." Another said, "We meet each other as equals." The bottom line: there's support and then again, there's support. The evidence is that many of these groups are helpful, but I would need more specific information to answer your question precisely.

June 2001

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