The International Network For Mutual Help Centres has developed this working definition:

  • Self-help or mutual support is a process wherein people who share common experiences, situations or problems can offer each other a unique perspective that is not available from those who have not shared these experiences.
  • Self-help groups are run by and for group members. Professional providers may participate in the self-help process at the request and sanction of the group and remain in an ancillary, or consultant role.
  • Activities focus on social support through discussion and sharing of information and experiences but may extend to other activities and ways of interacting.
  • Self-help groups are open to people who share a common concern.
  • Self-help groups meet face-to-face, by conference call and online on a regular basis.
  • Self-help groups are voluntary and open to new members.
  • There is no charge to participate in a self-help group, although a nominal donation to cover expenses is sometimes requested, but not required.

The Difference Between a Peer-Led Self-Help Group (also referred to as a support group) and a Professionally-Led Support Group.

Peer-Led Self-Help Group:

  • Members share the same problem or situation; they are peers
  • Meets as members agree: some groups meet monthly, some two times a week
  • Leadership is shared, not paid
  • Size may be limited or membership may be open
  • Meetings are ongoing until the group ends naturally
  • No pre-registration but possibly screening
  • Membership by choice
  • Flexible program (group decides and/or follows the needs of the moment)
  • Focus can be anything, including support, social/recreational, education, advocacy, growth/problem solving
  • No, or minimal fee, to cover costs
  • Usually meet in informal settings, e.g. homes, churches

Professionally-Led Support Group

  • The facilitator may not share the problem of the group members; is not necessarily a peer
  • Meets within the time constraints of the facilitator
  • A trained facilitator, usually paid
  • Size may be limited or membership may be open
  • Often a set number of weeks; may be open-ended
  • May be pre-registration; possible screening
  • Membership may be required
  • The program is structured by the facilitator with input from the participants
  • Focus usually on education and growth but can be support and social/recreational
  • A fee may be charged
  • Usually meet in institutional settings, e.g. offices, hospitals