Creating a self-help group: where to start


Step #1

Ask yourself the following question :

Is there a self-help group in my area that can meet my needs?

To answer this question, contact the following :

  • The local community organization supporting self-help, in the Outaouais is CAP Santé Outaouais
  • Your Local Community Service Centre (CLSC)
  • Your local hospital
  • Other self-help groups that you know

You can also consult the public notices in the local newspapers or get information from people you know are familiar with what’s happening in your community.

Step #2

Find people who would be interested in helping you start a group.


First of all, answer the following two questions:

  • What is the situation that I want to remedy?
  • Who else might be in the same situation?

In other words:

  • Define the problem you want to solve.
  • Specify who your self-help group is aimed at. People with mental illness might have certain problems in common. Or the unemployed could share similar difficulties.

Once you have answered this question, you can specify to whom the group is addressed.
Will the group only be for those people who have a common problem or interest?
Can their family and friends join the group?
Are there geographic or age limits?


Next, answer the following two questions:

  • How do you contact the people?
  • What will I do once I have made first contact with the people?

To get in touch the people, you have to talk about your project with people you know, be they your immediate entourage, your doctor, or any other professional in whom you have confidence.

When three or four people have shown an interest in getting involved in you project and starting up the group, you can bring them together to form the founding committee or your self-help group.

Step #3

Define the goals of the group

At your first meeting, examine the reasons why you want to start a self-help group. It is important not to rush things, let everyone have a chance to speak. This will enable to group to get to know each other better and to define the main goals of the group.

Here are some examples of the goals you can set at this stage, depending on the problem your group is trying to address:

  • Break the solitude of its members.
  • Enable the members to get a glimpse of the positive elements of their situation.
  • Offer support and comfort.
  • Enable members to express their emotions in an intimate and friendly atmosphere.
  • Help members understand their emotions and find constructive ways of treating these emotions.
  • Complement the support and comfort received from friends, parents and professionals.
  • Provide members with documentation and information that might be useful to them.
  • Defining the goals of your group requires time and your founding committee might have to meet more that once on this issue. Take all the time you need. This step is important. You have to know the purpose of your meetings before making any public announcements.

Step #4

Choose a name for your group

The name of your group should be descriptive, clear and precise, so that it reflects the mission of the group. Moreover, it should be short and, to the extent possible, alluring.

Step #5

Determine the frequency of your meetings

Your founding committee should decide at what frequency the group would meet: once a week, twice a month, once a month, every two months?

Your decision on this issue will depend on the goals you have fixed for your group. Don’t forget that if the meetings are too far apart; the members might loose interest in the group. On the other hand, if you meet too often, they might find it too demanding.

Step #6

Determine the day and time of your meetings

When you are deciding on the day and time of your meetings, you should take into account the availability and preferences of your members. For example, a group might choose to meet during the day if the people they are targeting are afraid to of out in the evening or if they have to look after their children in the evening.

Step #7

Determine your meeting place

To locate a room for your meetings, get in touch with a number of organizations: parishes, schools, community centers, social clubs or the community self-help organization. You can also get in touch with the other self-help groups to see if they have some advice or referrals in this regard.

  • Make sure that your location is well situated: is it easily accessible by bus or is they’re parking nearby?
  • Choose a room that is both clean and bright and sufficiently large for the members to feel comfortable. Also make sure that there is space to prepare refreshments.

Step #8

Publicize the start of your group

This is a great way to recruit members for your group.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Produce pamphlet and distribute it in a number of places where you believe you will reach people interested in being part of the group: medical clinics, hospitals, libraries, CLSC’s, schools, universities, banks, etc.
  • Public announcements in the newspapers, on the radio and on television. This approach has the advantage of being free. Some of the media might even be willing to grant you an interview.


Typical way a self-help meeting unfolds

It is important that your meeting be well structured, so as to enable each member to speak and to ensure that the group’s goals are met. Here is an example of the way a typical 2-hour meeting will proceed (from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.)

6:45 p.m. – Arrival of people responsible for setting up the room: Arrange the chairs, review the agenda, prepare the documentation for new members as well as other documents necessary for the meeting. Ensure that the heating is adequate and that the coffee maker is clean, etc.

Any new member will be looking for basic information about the group and how it functions. You might offer him or her an information kit containing; general information, schedule of meetings, if possible, a couple of articles and bibliographic references of interest to the group.

Welcoming the members: Ensure that all members, both old and new, receive a warm welcome. Answer any questions asked. Distribute documentation required.
7:00 p.m. – Opening remarks and presentation of the facilitating team
7:05 p.m. - Information on how the meeting will proceed
7:10 p.m. – Reading of the goals and rules of operation of the group
7:15 p.m. – Roundtable
7:45 p.m. – Break
8:00 p.m. – Choosing a theme
8:10 p.m. – Discussion on the theme
8:55 p.m. – Other information
9:00 p.m. – Adjournment
9:15 p.m. – Departure of those responsible


Rules of operations

To get maximum benefit from the meetings, the following rules of operations will govern deliberations:

  • The group starts and ends the meetings at the appointed time.
  • I respect the subject (s) chosen by the majority of the members.
  • I avoid the following areas during the discussion period: religion, politics, and opinion on the health professionals and/or specific medication.
  • I respect the leadership that the facilitating team must exert.
  • I respect the confidential nature of what is said in the group.
  • I exercise active, non-judgmental listening.
  • I respect the exclusive right of each member to participate in the group discussions.
  • The facilitating team avoids giving advice unless specifically asked for by a member (the facilitators are not psychiatrist, pharmacists or other health professionals).

Goals of a self-help group

  • Break the solitude and rekindle hope
  • Help oneself by helping others
  • Understand, accept and cope with the disease
  • Share personal knowledge and experience
  • Exert pressure tactics as required
  • Demystify the disease for spouses, parents, friends, employers etc.


In a self-help group, it is important that the greatest number of members possible take on some responsibilities. It should not always be the same people who look after everything.

Members can be responsible for the following:

  • Welcoming the members: Those who wish can arrive a little early for the meeting to welcome other members, provide documentation to new members and answer questions. They should pay particular attention to new members and act as their mentor or team them up with other members of the group who can perform this role. The mentor acts as a resource person for the new member; in other works, their role is to be available to answer questions and offer moral support.
  • Preparing the coffee: Someone has to be responsible for the coffee and to make sure there are cups, milk and sugar. This person will look after cleaning up the coffee area after the meeting. They can also look after collecting contributions from the members to cover expenses.
  • Assuming the functions of Chair, Vice-chair, Secretary and Treasurer of the group: Your group can decide to create a committee (chair, vice-chair, secretary and treasure) that will meet once a month to discuss a variety of issues. Preferably the elections will take place after a couple meetings so that the members of the group can get to know each other.


The members of self-help groups often need information on precise issues. To answer your members’ questions and to make the group more interesting, a variety of activities are possible.

Discussions on specific themes

When your members suggest discussing a specific them, be sure to consider it. If time doesn’t permit, take note of it and come back to it at the next meeting. In the event that your group is short of ideas, here is a list of possible themes:

  • Self-esteem
  • Problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Nutrition and lifestyle
  • Relationship with family and friends
  • Social integration: work, studies, volunteering


  • Groups who would like could, from time to time, invite speakers to their meetings. Speakers serve to attract the interest of members and inform them on specific issues. Speakers should provide their services free of charge in keeping with the philosophy of self-help.
  • Don’t forget that speakers need to be booked months in advance and should be called a week or two before the meeting to confirm the arrangements made.
  • If the members know professionals (therapist, social workers or psychiatrists), they can be invited to address the group of specific themes.
  • Sometimes speakers have to cancel their presentation at the last minute and so it is wise to have an alternative activity planned for the group (showing a video, for example).

Showing videos

Some local organizations have videos on subjects of interest to your group that can be borrowed for meetings. If you decide to borrow a video, don’t forget to familiarize yourself with the equipment in advance.

Information and awareness activities

Some groups (women’s groups, gays and lesbians, for example) undertake public information campaigns in order to exert pressure to have their rights recognized. Other groups (mental health groups, for example) undertake public awareness campaigns in order to be better understood in their community and workplace.

CAP Santé Outaouais autorise the reproduction of this texte. We only want you to indicate the source : How-to manual for self-help groups, CAP Santé Outaouais, Internet edition,