Mutual Aid Groups in mental health have positioned themselves in an important way as one of the most effective strategies to accompany and improve situations of psychic suffering related to different experiences.
Taking as a reference different guides for the Mutual Help Groups in mental health, developed by the first person associative group Activament (2014; 2018), we will explain below some of the main characteristics and functions of these groups.
Collective Help Strategies: Mutual Aid Groups
Mutual Aid Groups (GAM) are spaces where different people share life experiences related to a particular problem or difficulty. People meet and share these experiences with the intention of improving their situation, learning collectively and providing support to each other.
These are groups that have existed for a long time and can vary according to the specific experience that is shared. There are, for example, groups for people who are going through a situation of addiction, or for people who are in a process of mourning, or for those who have a disease in common, or for the relatives of those who have a diagnosis, among many others.
In the specific case of the Mutual Help Groups for people who have in common the experience of a diagnosis of mental disorder, these are generally informal spaces where people share their experiences in an open and reciprocal way.
In addition, aim to abandon the role of the sick person , which helps to respond to the various difficulties generated by the stigma and self-stigma that accompanies the diagnosis of mental disorder. Although the central theme is the experience related to a psychic discomfort (which may or may not include a diagnosis), the meetings also address issues of daily and personal life of each person.
5 characteristics of a GAM
There are a series of elements that are necessary for a group to be considered not only as a group of people who meet and talk about their life experiences, but also as a Mutual Aid Group, where beyond sharing these experiences, it is a matter of ensuring that its members improve their situation in an accompanied and reciprocal way . Some of the main characteristics of the GAMs are the following
1. Sharing experiences and needs
Given that the main objective of the Mutual Aid Groups is, as their name indicates, to provide help to each other, it is essential that the help is on the same experience . The latter can connect with other experiences, which will be different from those of other people, but there must be one that all have in common.
2. Participation by choice
Another characteristic of Mutual Aid Groups is that the person who has the experience decides voluntarily to attend the meetings and be part of the group. No one is forced or obliged to participate, and such participation is also not prescribed by anyone else. The aim is to ensure that the person who has the experience takes an active position before the experience.
This is important for people who have a mental health diagnosis or an experience of psychic suffering, as they often assign themselves and assume passive and disempowered roles.
3. Periodic meetings
It is necessary for Mutual Aid Groups to meet with some frequency so that their objectives are achieved. In other words, Mutual Aid Groups do not meet just once. It is very important that the members create links between themselves and recognize the needs of others and themselves with sufficient trust and complicity so that the meetings have some continuity.
4. Small groups
In order to foster a climate of trust and complicity, it is important that the GAMs are constituted by a small number of people. This makes it easier for all members to participate and exchange their experiences with a sense of closeness.
In addition this facilitates the organization of the group in other ways , ranging from speaking time to interpersonal knowledge. Nor should the group be too small. Between 5 and 10 members is a recommended figure.
5. Horizontality (no hierarchy)
One of the most important characteristics of Mutual Aid Groups is that there are no role differences between members. They are based on the principle of horizontality, which means that there are no different hierarchies. In this sense, the rules related to group moderation are the responsibility of the whole group .
The principle of horizontality makes it possible for a climate of trust and complicity to be established, and, unlike what happens in therapeutic sessions, the people who are part of GAM take an active role in their own experience.
The main values of a GAM
The voices of all people are recognized as equally important. One of the most important values for Mutual Aid Groups in mental health is respect, which involves valuing diversity and encouraging that each person can make their own voice heard , with their own ideas and life experiences. In the same sense, the value of inclusion is very important, which ensures that all people can share their voices in equal opportunities. And also the opposite: no one is forced or pressured to speak during the sessions.
It is also important to maintain confidentiality, that is, not to explain the participants’ experiences to people outside the group. In this line, it is also necessary to maintain the commitment to the group , which means trying to ensure that attendance at the sessions occurs regularly and dedicating the necessary time to it.
Finally, people who participate in a GAM come with the intention of expanding their social networks, to relate to people who have similar experiences, and also to avoid the rejection that can occur in other spaces.
Are mental health GAMs the same as group therapy?
The difference between GAM and group therapy is that, although GAM can benefit the mental health and well-being of participants, it is not considered psychotherapy. This is because there is no psychotherapist in the middle of the group sessions. And they are different from group therapy because GAMs are not situated in the logic of treatment , while participants are not expected to assume disease-therapist roles. The experiences are shared and worked on from first-person knowledge, not from external “academic knowledge”.
- ActivaMent Catalunya Association (2018). Guide for Mutual Aid Groups of Mental Health in first person. Activated by mental health. Recovered 20 June 2018. Available at http://activatperlasalutmental.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/guia-1a-persona-21_03-1530.pdf.
- ActivaMent Catalunya Association (2014). Mutual Aid Groups. Guidance Document for the Constitution and Management of Mutual Aid Groups in Mental Health. Retrieved 19 June 2018. Available at https://consaludmental.org/publicaciones/Guiagruposayudamutua.pdf.