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TORONTO -- The rapid growth of online support groups apparently hasn't wiped out Americans' appetite for the face-to-face kind: Nearly 1 out of 5 attend groups at some point in their lives, a psychologist reported over the weekend.
National surveys show about 26 million have participated in self-help groups and 11 million attend now, says Stanford University psychologist Keith Humphreys. ''Some are going to want high-touch and not just high-tech,'' so they don't bare their troubles on the Internet, Humphreys told the American Psychological Association meeting here.
''We don't know how much good the online groups do because they haven't been carefully studied yet,'' he says. But there's solid evidence that face-to-face peer support groups really help people with weight problems, mental disorders, addictions and bereavement, Humphreys says. Although many attend groups for people with specific physical diseases, such as cancer, studies are small and inconclusive on the benefits of these groups, he says.
Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who go to peer support groups run up lower medical bills than those who try to go it alone, Humphreys says, and patients with mental illness are less likely to be hospitalized again if they participate in self-help groups.
In the past decade, physicians and therapists have become more favorably inclined toward peer support, says psychologist Greg Meissen of the Self-Help Network, an information clearinghouse at Wichita State University.
And although the disease-oriented ones lack scientific studies to prove their worth, they draw participants for good reasons, he believes. ''We hear that if you have a physical illness and want the best referrals for doctors, these groups are great because you'll find out how the doctors treat people,'' Meissen says.
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