Lean on Me

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When you're not strong, support groups will help you carry on.

The Beatles may no longer be turning out hits, but more people than ever are singing, "Help. I need somebody."

An estimated 25 million people will participate in self-help groups at some time during the course of their lives, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. With the advent of the Internet and online support groups, that number is expected to rise, as a growing network of support becomes available for the masses of individuals who find in-person groups physically problematic or emotionally uncomfortable.

Today, about 3 percent to 4 percent of the U.S. population, or between 8 million and 11 million people, participate in self-help groups each year. The average age of a self-help group member is 43 and, perhaps surprisingly, is more likely to be male - 3.6 percent of men are attendees compared with 2.4 percent of women. Whites are three times as likely to participate as blacks.

The study, published earlier this year in the American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association, examined both online and offline support group participation for sufferers of 20 illnesses. They found that those diagnosed with alcoholism, cancer (all types), diabetes, AIDS, depression, and chronic fatigue syndrome are the most likely to join a support group. The least likely to seek support, are sufferers of ulcers, emphysema, chronic pain, and migraines, in that order.

Looking solely at the offline world, researchers found that alcoholics are the most likely of all illness-sufferers to seek out in-person contact - they are 293 times more likely than hypertension and migraine patients (who are the least likely) to do so. AIDS, anorexia, and breast cancer patients also rank high for face-to-face participation.

When it comes to cyber support, however, multiple sclerosis patients have the highest activity level. The virtual world is also popular among those suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, breast cancer, and anorexia.

"The online domain may be particularly useful in bringing together those who suffer from rare and debilitating conditions, in which getting together physically would present a number of practical barriers," says Kathryn Davison, one of the report's authors. "Virtual support can be very attractive to those whose disability impairs mobility, and the online community allows for anonymity."

As a general rule, the study reports, conditions described as embarrassing, socially stigmatizing, and disfiguring are associated with increased participation in all kinds of social support. In fact, embarrassment around discussion of one's illness was found to be the number one reason people seek help.

For more information, on "Who Talks? The Social Psychology of Illness Support Groups," call the American Psychological Association at (202) 336-5706.

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