The neglected aspect of mental health recovery: Support groups and why they are taking centre stage

Studies have shown that peer support in traditional mental health settings improves engagement, and well-being, and reduces hospitalizations.Picture:Unsplash/Priscilla Du preez

Studies have shown that peer support in traditional mental health settings improves engagement, and well-being, and reduces hospitalizations.Picture:Unsplash/Priscilla Du preez

Published Sep 18, 2023


The meaning of recovery from serious mental illness (SMI) has come a long way. It used to be overlooked as a goal of treatment, but today, it takes centre stage in mental health policy.

It is alarming to learn that the World Health Organization reported over 970 million people were suffering from mental disorders worldwide in 2019.

The situation is no different in South Africa, where according to the Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), 1 in 3 South Africans will face a mental health issue at some point in their lifetime.

Even more concerning is the fact that only 1 in 10 people with a mental illness seek professional help and these statistics were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Mental health services are continuously evolving and recognising that social factors play a critical role in understanding and addressing mental health problems is increasingly taking centre stage in holistic treatment.

The World Health Organization recently highlighted the significant impact of social conditions on overall health and well-being.

Most research has focused on the impact of mental health conditions on physical illnesses, but it is crucial to acknowledge the profound influence of social determinants on mental health.

More and more studies are showing that social support plays a protective role in preventing depression at an individual level.

When you're going through a tough time, your loved ones may sympathise, but they often struggle to find the right words or actions to help.

While doctors and health professionals may offer some emotional support, their main focus is always on the medical side of things.

Only 1 in 10 people with a mental illness seek professional help. Picture:Unsplash/ Adrianna Geo

In a thought-provoking article by Associate Professor William Gumede from the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, published in October 2021, he highlights the dire state of mental health care in South Africa: "South Africa allocates a mere 5% of its total health budget to mental health, placing us at the bottom of international benchmarks.

“This means that less than 1 person in 10 receives the mental health care they need. The lack of capacity, accessibility, and resources in the public health sector further exacerbates the situation, leaving poor South Africans even more vulnerable."

According to Harvard Health Publishing, studies have shown that peer support in traditional mental health settings improves engagement, and well-being, and reduces hospitalizations.

Mental health is a pressing issue that affects millions of people worldwide.

As we strive for better understanding and support, it is essential to recognize the impact of social factors, increased access to mental health care, and creating inclusive support systems that address the diverse needs of individuals.

What is a support group?

SADAG explains that the support group is a gathering of people facing common issues to share what’s troubling them. Through the sharing of experiences, they’re able to offer support, encouragement, and comfort to the other group members, and receive the same in return.

According to, a nonprofit organisation that runs one of the world's largest mental health portals, there are different kinds of support groups, and depending on what you need, you can select a mutual support group, a 12-step help group, or a therapy group.

Just remember that whatever support group you choose, it’s not a substitute for medical care.

Types of support groups:

Mutual support groups

Mutual support groups are peer-led groups. Participants in a mutual support group can be people dealing with a certain condition or circumstance, whether it’s a medical issue, domestic abuse, grief, or a mood disorder.

Other support groups are designed to provide support for family members or friends of someone who is living with a difficult situation.

12-step self-help groups

12-step programs are typically geared toward those with an addiction, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, or sex. During group meetings, participants work through the 12 steps to recovery created by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Group therapy

Group therapy is the treatment of multiple patients at the same time by one or more healthcare experts. The American Psychological Association states that although it may initially seem difficult to participate in a group with strangers, group therapy has advantages that individual therapy might not have.

In fact, psychologists say that group members are almost always surprised by how rewarding the group experience can be.

Why join a support group?

This aspect of recovery was developed to join people together who are dealing with similar difficult circumstances. Talking and listening to others also helps you put your problems in perspective.

Many people experience mental health difficulties, but few speak openly about them to people they don't know well. Whatever issues you or a loved one are facing, the best medicine can often be the voice of people who have walked in your shoes.

Plus as you go through challenging circumstances, you may need to learn new ways to cope. Opting for instant gratification through destructive coping mechanisms is not sustainable.

At a support group, you’ll learn coping skills from people who’ve found success using them first-hand. You might learn tips on meditating, journaling, or things you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

You might also pick up new ways to set healthy boundaries and function better.