The Evolution of Support Groups

four people's hands joined in support


Support groups have long been considered one of the best ways for people to find healing and community in difficult circumstances. But where did they begin?

The earliest documented support group in the US started with alcoholics. The Washington Total Abstinence Movement began in 1842 with the goal of helping heavy drinkers maintain sobriety. In order to build a community that would stabilize and provide “mutual aid”, many members didn’t drink at all, including famous teetotaler Abraham Lincoln. Although mostly comprised of men, it also had female and non-white members.

This group, and the ones that followed—the Salvation Army and Alcoholics Anonymous specifically—extended beyond mutual aid and into the realm of confession. Heavily influenced by Protestant revival meetings, alcoholics would “confess” their wrongdoing to the group and lean on this experience to help them maintain sobriety. Eventually, the Washington Total Abstinence Movement died out and, years later, another form of support began.

In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous appeared on the scene as an effort to help alcoholics recover and live a healthy life. Since then, support groups have become a common part of coping, treatment, and recovery.

Some support groups address mental health and wellness, others address substance abuse, and still others help those who are coping with loss or change. As seen above, groups that meet in person have been around since the days of Abe Lincoln, but there are new trends in the support group movement that extend beyond four walls and into the virtual world.

Hotlines, websites, and apps have all played a role in the evolution of support groups. These technologies allow people to seek out support without having to commit to or rearrange their schedule for an in-person meeting. It also means that people have support at their fingertips all the time, which can be incredibly important.

One app, Huddle, was designed specifically for mental health and addiction support groups, but it anyone can seek support there for any reason. It provides options that allow users to protect their privacy while also meeting virtually with peers who have shared experiences.

Another app, Big White Wall, allows people with shared mental health experience to come together virtually. It includes discussion boards and online therapy programs.

These apps are only two examples in a sea of nearly endless options, and they are very different from their predecessor the Washington Total Abstinence Movement—but they share one theme in common: People need each other in order to thrive.