Emory Report
March 24, 2008
Volume 60, Number 24


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March 24, 2008
Self-help: American as apple pie, Oprah

By Carol Clark

The camera pans over a somber group of people in a church basement. They sit on folding chairs in a circle, some of them sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups.

Whether in real-life or in countless Hollywood productions, Americans immediately recognize the scene of a self-help support group in session. “We can read it culturally. Self-help groups have diffused through our society and are an accepted part of health care,” says Matthew Archibald, assistant professor of sociology.

Archibald began studying the self-help phenomena as a graduate student. His book, “The Evolution of Self-Help: How a Health Movement Became an Institution,” was recently published by Palgrave MacMillan.
America provided fertile ground for developing a self-help tradition, he says. “The U.S. is a really decentralized system and early immigrants had to figure out how to do things at the local level. Hundreds of years later, we’re still doing it that way.”

A group of U.S. veterans who lost limbs in battle formed one of the first documented self-help groups in 1919, called the Society for the Wooden Leg. But Archibald says the movement really took off in 1935 when two struggling alcoholics in New York launched Alcoholics Anonymous — considered the granddaddy of modern-day self-help.

By the 1950s, he says, a shift in attitudes toward the mentally handicapped spurred parents of children with disabilities like Down Syndrome to start support groups, as they sought ways to care for their children outside of institutions.

During the freewheeling 1960s, self-help exploded as addictions came out of the closet and groups formed “for everything you could think of,” Archibald says. Later, confessional talk-show hosts like Phil Donahue and the queen of self-help, Oprah Winfrey, made it okay to air your most embarrassing flaws on national TV, which Archibald says further ingrained the self-help ethos into the mainstream consciousness.

Today the movement is accepted — and even encouraged — by the medical establishment. Archibald’s research turned up 589 self-help groups for chronic mental or physical conditions that have national chapters, but he admits that the number is debatable, depending on how you define self-help. The national chapters serve as umbrellas for thousands of local branches, making it even harder to quantify, he adds.

Scientific research on the effectiveness of self-help groups remains ambiguous, he says, adding: “I think it’s really good for groups of people facing adversity to challenge institutions of power and help keep them honest.”

Like movements for civil rights, the self-help tradition has played a major role in shaping the American psyche, Archibald concludes. “It’s about self-actualization and seeing your condition differently by confronting it,” he says. “We’re an upstart society that became a world power by constantly reinventing ourselves.”