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Tips for Starting Rural Peer Support Groups

Community Health Group

Rural communities are unique, and therefore have unique needs when it comes to support group development. The following are a few insights into rural communities and suggestions that could be helpful in developing self-help groups.

Tip 1: Stress Confidentiality Among Group Members

  • Confidentiality is a very important issue in support group development and can be more of a challenge to maintain in rural communities. People in rural communities are sometimes more reluctant to openly share problems or concerns for fear that everyone in their small town will find out.

  • Some people would rather travel to another town to attend a support group than attend one in their own community. This is especially true for issues that can be stigmatizing. It’s important to stress at every meeting that what’s said in the meeting stays in the meeting, and that if this is violated, it will need to be confronted in the group. Encourage group members to discuss the meaning of confidentiality and ways to keep what’s said confidential.

  • Think creatively about the meeting place and the name of your group. Rotate the meeting place in order to help protect anonymity. Create a group name that can help maintain privacy and confidentiality. One women’s group in a rural community joined together as a softball team, and has support and information meetings as well as team meetings.

Tip 2: Share Responsibilities

It’s sometimes hard to find professionals or community members who are able to volunteer to be involved in the leadership of a peer support group. People are spread very thin because there aren’t as many resources in small towns. This is why the concept of shared leadership is so important. Five people sharing the tasks of the group works much better than one person trying to do it all. Also, when people have a part in the leadership, it helps them build their confidence and self-esteem and can help in their healing process. Sharing leadership is very empowering.

Tip 3: Have Realistic Expectations

  • Because of the sparse numbers of people in rural areas, it’s helpful to keep groups general in focus in order to get enough people to attend. For example, a caregiver group for people who are caring for an elderly person would probably draw more people than a more specialized group like an Alzheimer’s caregiver group.

  • Starting a support group in a rural area might take more time. It may take longer to earn trust and respect in the community, and it’ll probably take continual education to help the community understand what a self-help group is and how it can help people. Plan on at least six months to get the group off the ground and at least one year before it stabilizes. Be patient!

  • The number of members in the group may be smaller in rural communities. Don’t worry if attendance is four or five people each meeting. In a small town, that’s good. Big numbers aren’t always a sign of success. Understanding, friendship, accountability, and close bonds will be more prevalent in a smaller group and will help people make real life changes.

  • Keep in mind that it takes time for people to decide they need help. Self-help is not for everyone. Keep potential members informed but don’t push.

Tip 4: Respond to Group Members Needs

As a first meeting, it’s sometimes a good idea to hold an educational workshop on a topic of interest to people who might want to join a group. This format may be less intimidating to people, and it’s a good way to find out who’s interested in the topic. For example, if you want to start a cancer support group, start off by having a physician speak about cancer treatment. Then when you get people there, ask them if they’d like to continue to meet to gain information and support on cancer issues. This is a good way to gather interested people to help in the work of starting a new group.

Tip 5: Reach Out to Your Community

  • Word of mouth is one of the best ways to spread the word about a support group, especially in a rural community. People will be more open to attending a meeting if a friend or someone else they trust encourages them to attend.

  • Community newspapers often have free coming events listings.

  • Gain the support of local organizations. Community service offices exist in almost every small town and are wonderful resources. Make friends with their staff! Ask them to speak to your group, use their handouts and materials, and utilize their professional expertise. Earn their trust and ask them to help spread the word about your group to people that they come in contact with.

  • Because faith and spirituality can be so important in the lives of rural families, churches may be especially interested in initiating and sponsoring groups.

  • Consider all the resources that are available in your small town and how the group could utilize them. You might be surprised to find out that a local pastor has video tapes on parenting, that your community centre will supply a speaker about stress management, or that your health department has brochures that would be helpful to your group.

Tip 6: Promote Self-Help

In times of budget constraints and increasing health care costs, letting the public know about the benefits of support groups can only strengthen a community. Better to have lots of small groups throughout a large sparsely populated area than only one.

Adapted from Self-Help Network of Kansas’ Tips for Starting Rural Self-Help Groups