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  Mailman School
  of Public Health
  Columbia University
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NOTE: as of April 17, 2007, the Free to Grow program has closed.

Self-Help and the Human Services: Toward a New Caring Paradigm

Family Support


Increasingly, human services designed to treat people's problems are considered ineffective in improving the capacity of families to provide for themselves and to nurture their children.  Services are perceived as too fragmented and pathology-based to offer families what they need to succeed.  They may provide both too little and provide too late.  In some instances, the service system is even accused of doing harm by breeding dependency and disempowering families.

At the same time, there is increasing concern about the lack of hopefulness and the feeling of giving up, burnout, that is characteristic of much of human service work, particularly as it is directed toward high-risk populations.  There is a need for a new ethos of hope and involvement for both consumers and providers.  Simple put, the human services need to be more effective, and a new service ethos needs to be developed.

Recently, self-help has become the symbol of renewal for civil society, a means of asserting autonomy and self-determination for individuals and communities.  Self-help groups are often formed as a spontaneous response to an absence of services or to a hierarchical and formal organization of services that people feel unsatisfactory.  The last twenty or twenty-five years have witnessed a vast expansion in the activities of groups devoted to self-help and mutual aid, which stress personal responsibility and interdependence, as well as direct, local action.  They present an ethos that is empowering rather than protective or philanthropic.  This comes at a time when the search is on for new strategies to tackle social problems and meet individual needs.  Integrating self-help principles and practices into the human services has the potential for creating a new caring paradigm, blending the strengths that both consumers and professionals bring to the helping process.

While there are various ways to describe what is meant by self-help, we are primarily concerned with mutual aid groups. These are groups formed by people who have the same problem or life experience.  They come together for mutual support and to share information, coping skills and understanding.  People learn to give and take support, to value others and to feel valued themselves.  Essential characteristics of these groups include informality, equality among members, a common concern and a decision to do something about this concern.  A group typically determines its own direction and aims; it is run by and for its members; participation and contributions are voluntary.

Self-help groups vary in nature.  There are groups that try to reform and transform their members, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Parents Anonymous, Tough Love, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and many others.  There are self-help community groups, such as neighborhood associations, community development corporations, block watches.  Another self-help model is economic self-help.  These groups develop their own economic resources by forming associations among their members.

In large part, the self-help ethos is directed toward a reaffirmation of basic core traditions as related to the role of community, neighborhood, spiritual values and self-reliance.  Among its other characteristics is an emphasis on experience-based wisdom and understanding from the perspective of the insider.  Demystification is another element reflected in simple, direct principles rather than in jargon or circuitous explanations.


[1] From: "Self-Help and the Human Services: Toward a New Caring Paradigm"; The National Self-Help Clearinghouse, New York, NY; 1996


copyright 2008 Free To Grow
Free To Grow is a national program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University.