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Self Help and Empowerment: What Is It?

Summer 2002

Norwegian Self-help Forum (NSF)
Morellsvei 9, 0487
Oslo, Norway
Last updated June 16, 1999

Self-help (Self'-help"), n: The act of aiding one's self, without depending on the aid of others.

The Norwegian Way

After several years of work in the area, the Anxiety Ring in Oslo settled for the following definition:

"Self-help means to grasp our potentialities, discover our resources, accept responsibility for our life and live it in the way we ourselves decide. Self-help means starting a process of change -- from being a passive recipient to becoming an active participant in one's own life."

This definition now represents the basis of most of the self-help work that is carried out in Norway today.

The model for self-help for individuals and groups can be of benefit to all people who have acknowledged that they have a life-problem and they have the will to work on it.

12 Pillars of Self-Help

  1. Self-help builds on the participant's own innate resources.

  2. The starting point for self-help is the participants' acknowledged common problem.

  3. Self-help is based on the need felt by the individual participant to work on his or her problem, that he or she has the motivation to do so, and has made a decision to participate actively.

  4. Everybody participates at their own risk.

  5. The groups are based on give-and-take, equal worth, and tolerance.

  6. The groups are not based on patronizing or a top-down structure.

  7. The groups are based on active participation, not on the role of a passive recipient.

  8. The groups are based on the communication and expression of each participant's feelings and thoughts.

  9. The work is based on openness, but not more openness than the participants want or are ready for.

  10. The participants are bound to secrecy and have a duty to attend or report their absence.

  11. The group's goal is helping each participant grow from the inside, not by someone coming in from the outside or above to lend a hand, counsel, or teach.

  12. The group is an active working group.

Insufficient Funding

There are many issues around questions concerning what self-help is and what it may become. In addition to the Norwegians, the Consumer Advisory Council for the State Office of AIDS here in California is also working on a definition.

Two conferences have been held under the title of "Self-Help the Norwegian Way." These gatherings have drawn people from a wide selection of organizations which use self-help in some form as an aspect of their daily activities. One of the most important tasks for advocates of self-help programs is the dissemination of knowledge and the sharing of the experiences of self-help members.

For the past 2-3 years, the authorities in Norway, both centrally and locally, have increasingly acknowledged the benefits and usefulness of self-help. This has resulted in an increase in public allocations for programs in the field. In Los Angeles, there is support for self-help programs for People with AIDS. Yet funding is an issue. There are many opponents to the idea of "self-help" and some professionally driven services may even feel threatened by the notion, particularly when resources are scarce.

Ensuring Self-Help

  • One of the tasks is to ensure that what is genuine and authentic in the ideology of self-help is further developed independently of any government-directed goal management of allocated funds. [This means, in our case, that PWAs and consumers of services must form coalitions and work independently of prompting by funding sources. Set our own objectives and remain focused on our mission and goals.]

  • It is important to ensure that self-help does not become a government healthcare amenity, but that it remains accessible as an opportunity chosen by means of a purposeful decision.

  • Public funding of self-help work may be exploited as a justification by the authorities to cut back on other essential public services. The community must be aware of these types of ploys and not be swayed by exploitation.

  • When areas of the self-help field receive public funding, then money can be used to employ personnel when necessary to coordinate the work.

  • Funding can ensure that self-help becomes known more widely and is accessible to a wider public by making funds available to publish informational and promotional materials.

  • Public funding can contribute to the systematic gathering of knowledge and its dissemination.

A serious educational challenge confronting this work is to make self-help accessible to as many as possible.

Self-help increases the self-helper's quality of life and improves his or her ability to cope. The freeing of resources within the individual means that more resources are available to the community.

Strong and self-assured people create positive and strong communities. However, efforts to make self-help more widely known and accessible have been left without sufficient funding.


Working with self-help can play a significant role in the individual's motivational process, in facing processes of change in relation to one's particular life-problem. Taking the next step includes advocating for others in need of self-help. This task requires a collective vision from current empowered self-help participants and may entail the following:
  • Motivation to work for change.

  • Interaction with professional assistance: Self-help work can often be done alongside and in dialogue with professional workers.

Challenges of Self-Help

For many people self-help represents a way of working that is out of the ordinary.

Based on our collective experiences, the following represent important issues for self-help work:

  • Information and advice for individual people, groups, and organizations.

  • The composition of the self-help groups and their size.

  • Absenteeism and instability in the group's activities. [Especially when groups are formed around illness and comprised of those living with life-threatening diseases.]

  • To listen, to understand -- to wonder: what is it people really are saying?

  • Being a participant in a group without a leader is both strange and unfamiliar and requires that each individual accepts their share of the common responsibility.

  • The lack of structure is peculiar, unfamiliar, and frightening for many, and therefore represents a great challenge in self-help work.

While it is of utmost importance to have a good time, our work does not cease there. In order to enjoy life to the fullest, we must continue to work on issues that may be problematic in the future. If developmental work in a group comes to a halt at a "having-a-good-time" plateau, then self-help work will have no further effect.

Knowledge and Skills

After many years of activity in the field of self-help in Norway, the NSF has come to the conclusion that the communication of knowledge and skills is essential. It is vital to impart to others who desire to work with self-help experiences in a systematic way.

Support Groups

Self-help groups are voluntary small group structures for mutual aid and the accomplishment of a special purpose. They are usually formed by peers who have come together for mutual assistance in satisfying a common need, overcoming a common handicap or life-disrupting problem and bringing about desired social and or personal change. The initiators of such groups emphasize face to face social interactions and the assumption of personal responsibility by members. They often provide material assistance, as well as emotional support. They are frequently cause-oriented, and promulgate an ideology or values through which members may attain an enhanced sense of personal identity.

-- Alfred H. Katz & Eugine I. Bender 1976 -- The Strength in Us.

What Is a Self-Help Group?

A self-help group is defined by "Self-Help Nottingham" as a group consisting of people who have personal experience of a similar issue or life situation, either directly or through their family and friends. Sharing experiences enables them to give each other a unique quality of mutual support and to pool practical information and ways of coping.

We work largely with groups based on health, social or personal issues which are run by their members. Some self-help groups expand their activities. They may provide, for example, services for people who face a similar issue or life situation; or they may campaign for change. Professionals may sometimes take part in the group in various ways when asked to by the group.

Some groups will hold regular meetings -- on a weekly, monthly, quarterly basis. Meetings may be in public venues, such as community centers, or in members' homes. Other groups will maintain support through letter writing, a network of telephone contacts, Internet chat rooms, and e-mail.

This definition has been adopted to assist "Self-Help Nottingham" to clarify the boundaries of its work, not to imply that groups have to conform to this exact definition.

Starting a Group

Setting up a group can take time and requires some careful consideration. It can, however, be a rewarding experience and if you are thinking of setting up a group you may want to consider the following questions:

How does a self-help group differ from other groups you may know?

A self-help group is made up of people sharing a common issue or experience, either directly or through their partners and families (e.g., chronic illness, bereavement, parents' support group). Self-help groups are different from other groups because they are run by and for their members. This means that members are responsible for organizing and running the group.

Who will the group be for and what might it do?

Will it be for people directly affected (by the illness, situation, etc.) or will partners and caregivers be welcome? Is there an age limit? Will it be for people in a particular area? Starting to think about and to answer some of these questions will begin to help you to plan the group and will influence how it is run. Wherever possible it is best if you can get one or two people to share the load of setting up the group.

Do you want links with professionals?

Are there any professionals who could help? Could you use contacts with, for example, an M.D., health counselor, or social worker? Think about what you might ask them to do -- put up a poster, come to give a talk, provide a meeting room, help with transportation or tell people about the group.

What other things do you need to think about?

Will you need to fundraise? How often will you meet and where? Will you want to advertise the group or offer telephone contact points? What will you do at meetings? Will you need a committee? How will you welcome new members?

There are probably more questions you can think of to ask and answering some or all of these will form a good foundation to decide whether or not to set up a self-help group.

But, before starting a group, we must become empowered.


Empowerment -- the activation of resources. "Empowerment is that process which is essential to strengthen and activate a person's capacity to satisfy their own needs, solve their own problems, and acquire the necessary resources to take control over their life" (S. Talseth, 1997).

The idea of empowerment is based on active participation by deciding to accept responsibility and, thereby, (re)gaining power over one's life. This may lead to the emergence of a sense of strength which allows the person to exert control and build up his or her self-confidence. In this manner resources such as the capacity to make individual decisions and opportunities to take part in community life become viable possibilities.

Online Self-Help Groups

Women Alive and the Positive Images Consortia aims to develop knowledge and skills in this area, enabling us to support locally-based self-help groups who wish to meet and hold discussions online. Log on to:

Or simply call 1.888.600.4POS for a self-help chat group on the phone [a completely anonymous way to reach out]. New groups are springing up such as Pos Hetero Chat. It's great to see folks involved with community efforts and helping themselves live fuller lives.

To see an example of a Derby-based initiative which has extended its self-help contacts through online support, visit the Beyond Fear dental phobia self-help resource.

Hey, what ever happened to the positive living room? That was a great self-help chat room. Many self-help programs fall by the wayside when resources are scarce. An example is PWAC, NY -- they were great! Excellent newsletter and great people. They closed down a couple of years ago. Some may still remember the PWA-Rag, a newsletter by and for HIV-positive prisoners. I guess when Jimmy Magner got out of prison, this project ceased.

Keep Self-Help Alive!

There are groups in Los Angeles and surrounding areas based around a wide range of health, social and personal issues. There are groups for people living with a particular disease and condition and also groups for caregivers and family members. Where a local group doesn't exist, Women Alive and other self-help organizations can put people in touch with national organizations or help support individuals in their efforts to start up a new group.

Self-Help Organizations

Being Alive; People With AIDS Action Coalition
621 North San Vincente Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

BABES Network
1001 Broadway #100
Seattle, WA 98122

The Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, run by and for patients of medical marijuana

Positives For Positives
311 West 18th Street
Cheyenne, WY 82001

The Women Alive Coalition

This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.
See Also
10 Things You Can Do to Enhance Your Emotional Well-Being
More on Support Groups for Coping With HIV