Success of self-help groups assessed

By Karen Patterson

Knight Ridder Newspapers

TORONTO -- Psychologists want to know more about how to help those who help themselves.

Many thousands of self-help groups exist worldwide. But little is known about how they work conceptually, said Keith Humphreys of Stanford University.

"Most people tend to study disorders rather than phenomena or processes," he said. "If you read the literature, you see that people write about self-help on cancer but don't ever mention the literature about self-help on depression."


In terms of organizational structure and impact, "we don't know a lot more than we do know," added Gregory Meissen of Wichita State University.

As voluntary, peer-run organizations that are focusing on a particular problem, self-help groups don't fit other molds, Meissen said recently at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in Toronto. "I think, in the last decade, people have begun to study self-help groups for what they are: They are unique organizations," he said.

Among the different types of such groups, scientists know the most about the ones focused on addiction, followed by those dealing with mental illness, Humphreys said.

"Many people think self-help groups begin and end with Alcoholics Anonymous. And it is the biggest self-help group on earth," he said.

Yet despite its worldwide influence, AA was not widely appreciated among mental-health professionals, he said. That changed in the last decade, when a National Institutes of Health study found that a grass-roots 12-step program such as AA held its ground compared with two professionally run treatment programs.

Long-term studies are needed, he said, rather than just quick snapshots asking people whether they think a group helps. Of course, people in a group will say it helps -- that's why they attend, he said.

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