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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 54, Number 3 Summer 2021

Self-Help and Mutual Support Interest Group

Edited by Thomasina Borkman, George Mason University and Ronald Harvey, American University in Bulgaria

New Beginnings, Part 3:  Membership Declines with Internet growth

Written by Carol Randolph, New Beginnings

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[Carol Randolph, founder of New Beginnings (NB) continues her narrative (story) of how the group became organized, grew and evolved in functions over the last 41 years in this second installment. The third and final installment will discuss how the internet affected New Beginnings as well as other self-help support groups and relate New Beginnings’ journey to that of other similar groups. Contact: NewBCarol@verizon.net and www.newbeginningsusa.org]

[ This third installment about New Beginnings, the now nearly 42-year-old self-help support group for people undergoing divorce describes growth and changes in the organization between the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s before the Internet and as the Internet became accessible and pervasive. This installment is
Thomasinia_Borkman.png presented as a conversation between the founder Carol Randolph and Thomasina Borkman].

Carol: As membership grew in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so did the number of discussion meetings to accommodate the demand. With 40+ meetings/month, all in different members’ homes, the newsletter became unwieldy. We divided the group into two separate chapters, Maryland/DC and Virginia.  Each chapter had its own committee structure and newsletter.   

We also created Supplemental Support Groups—special interest groups (e.g., men, women, people under and over 50) to help people identify other members with specific shared concerns.   Supplemental Support Groups were member-initiated and member-driven, and only members could attend. 

In 1986 a group of members separated or divorced longer than three years created the Supplemental Support Group, 3+.  It grew in popularity with its own newsletter and separate membership until its end in 1997 due to a decline in participation.  Discussion topics were actually much the same as our regular programming, but because participants were farther along in their healing, the perspective was different.  They were beyond the raw, early stages and ready to move on in life.

 In 1987, we created ONE+ONE, a couples’ group for past and present NB members that offered the same NB format of discussions and social events, with the goal of fostering healthy relationships.   At least one member of the couple had to be or have been a member of NB.  It was a novel concept to have both partners in the same room at the same time, talking candidly about issues affecting their relationship.  I consulted with a local psychologist to help us create a safe and supportive framework for couples to engage in peer support.  It lasted 16 years, ending in 2003.

By 1992, we were running eight meetings on three topics each in MD each month (24), plus 16 meetings/month in VA.  In 1995, we offered a total of 42 meetings/month, often MD and VA on the same night, sometimes an “upstairs/downstairs” to accommodate the numbers if the host had space, and if we could book another facilitator. In 1997, we were still mailing printed newsletters; we had “mailing parties” each month to collate, fold, staple and label over 1500 newsletters and prepare them for bulk mail; our first email newsletter was Jan 2007. Membership peaked in 1997 at 1450; today it is under 100.

Certainly, people are still getting divorced; they still want to connect with others.  We continue to hear “NB saved my life.”  But the exhilaration of the 1980s and 1990s is gone.  I’m curious why this happened and whether similar changes occurred in other self-help support groups. 

Thomasina: Thank you, Carol, for giving me the opportunity to present your data and discuss it within the context of research on other self-help support groups.  As you just indicated, NB could have specialized groups when the numbers were large—a typical characteristic of specialization. I’m often struck by how many generalists there are in rural areas—not enough people to have specializations.  Rural areas are also more likely to have self-help support groups for general categories such as cancer or arthritis rather than specialist groups for breast cancer or juvenile arthritis.  

I compiled your data on average number of attendees per year and average number of discussion meetings in both Northern Virginia and Maryland/DC per year into four time periods (1991-1994, 1995-1999, 2000-2004, and 2005-2009) and Ron Harvey made it into charts. Let’s look first at the changes in the number of discussion meetings. 

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In 1991 there were 433 discussion meetings between Northern Virginia and DC/Maryland which declined to 79 meetings per year by 2010.  As you see from the chart, the number of discussion meetings did not decline much during the 1990s but fell precipitously around the end of the century and then continued a sharp decline until 2010. The number of attendees at meetings per year followed a similar pattern of decline as the number of meetings as shown in the following chart.

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Again, one sees a small decline during the 1990s followed by a sharp decrease at the turn of the Century and then a continuing decline to 2010. These declines are the obverse of the rise in access, reach, and prevalence of the Internet and the introduction and rise of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Carol, I am interested in your opinion of how the Internet and social media affected NB --both the benefits and downsides.

Carol: Somewhere in the late 1990's, everything changed.  Online dating sites fueled the notion that “All I need is a new partner; the problem with my marriage had nothing to do with me.”  People could bypass the hard work of recovery by jumping into a new relationship.  Unfortunately, without knowing what happened in the marriage and learning the skills necessary to keep it from happening again, unhealthy patterns are likely to repeat.  So membership in NB became an either/or with online dating sites.  It’s really a both/and: support to grieve and heal from the end of a marriage before entering a new relationship.

The Internet made it possible to meet people, a lot of people, without leaving your house.  People were busy.  They didn’t have TIME to get dressed up, go somewhere and spend several hours where they were likely to meet only one or two people if they were lucky.  Email made it easy to connect quickly, to put together a group to do something on short notice.  People didn’t need a membership organization to do that for them. 

Thomasina:  Your experience seems to coincide with comments in the self-help support research community, stating that in-person groups were losing members who joined groups on the Internet after 2000.  Can you talk some more about the impact of the Internet?

Carol:  Our first website was launched in 2003, the second in 2008, and the current one in 2013. Our Facebook page was created in April 2009.

In 2007 we joined Meetup, an online site that allows anyone to set up a group of any kind, often at no cost for members. It was intended as a portal to the parent organization.   Only some of our events were listed, without actual locations since those were in members’ homes; people had to contact me for details.   Membership grew to 400+ by 2014, but few ever RSVPed to anything, and those that did were often no-shows.  One person belonged to 87 Meetup groups; no one could actively participate in that many groups.  As soon as I instituted a $5 annual membership fee in 2014—mainly to help cover the cost of maintaining the site--the number of members plummeted to under 10.  It is extra work, and the income doesn’t cover the cost (now $200/year), but it remains another avenue of promotion.

The Internet has created an abundance of possibility—so much of it that it is increasingly difficult to keep up. Where once I printed and mailed one newsletter/month, now I am doing the equivalent of 5—a monthly one followed by weekly “reminder” emails of coming events.  People used to mark their calendars and plan ahead.  Now telling them once is not enough; they need to be told over and over again. A definite plus about email, though, is the virtual elimination of printing and postage costs.  Bulk mailings for fundraising or major events can be done by one person and cost little or nothing. 

Promotional opportunities have also exploded—Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Alignable, to name just a few.  Larger nonprofits have full-time staff devoted to maintaining and promoting their presence on social media.

Thomasina:  Another hypothesis I have is that as divorce has become more commonplace since the 1980s in the US, it is less stigmatized (see Gerstel, 1987) and there are more people who have been divorced.  These people are families and friends of others undergoing divorce now and can be supportive to them, thereby somewhat reducing the need for a special divorce support group. So fewer divorcing people may seek out a support group.    

Carol:  Actually, I think there will always be a need for support groups of all kinds.  Cancer is widespread, and almost everyone knows at least one person who has had it, but when it happens to you, it’s all new and terrifying.  If those people are lucky enough to have survived it, they may not be actively dealing with it now.  The professionals they consulted may not even be practicing anymore.  A support group is a community of others who are actively wrestling with the same issues, seeking the same professional help, and—in the case of divorce—navigating the same laws and court systems.  They are eager to help each other and rarely tire—as even the best-intentioned friends and family may—of listening and offering their own wisdom in response.

I don’t have a definitive answer as to why interest has declined.   If we had more money, would we be able to do more publicity and outreach?  If we had staff, could we do more with social media or pursue grants?  Is the interest still there, and we just haven’t been able to tap it, or is there a bigger social movement at work?

Thomasina: Tell me about the public education program you created.  

Carol: Divorce 101 is our signature public education program—a 6-week series about the divorce process in Maryland, offered twice a year since 2013 and targeted for people contemplating or in the early stages of separation.  I’m very proud of it and expect it to last even if the discussion meetings stop.

Each session is two hours and covers some aspect of the process—grounds for divorce, approaches (like litigation, mediation, Collaborative Divorce), spousal and child support, the marital home and retirement accounts, therapy, and support groups.  For $10/session or $50 for all six, participants have access to 13 of the top family law professionals in the area.  They can choose which sessions interest them, and there is time between to digest the material.  We are so lucky to have the full support of the professional community to make this happen.

Thomasina: I would like to end by complimenting you, Carol!  New Beginnings is remarkable for its unusually long longevity—nearly 42 years!  The little research I could find about the longevity of what are called “Life Stress” support groups, of which NB is one, was two to three years. Life stress refers to relatively short-term problems such as breastfeeding/infant care, grieving widowhood, or divorce that people work through in several years (see Maton and others, 1989). In contrast, addictions such as alcoholism or other substance use disorders are chronic diseases that last for decades, which is the case with their self-help support groups such as AA or Women for Sobriety.  Research found that member-initiated life stress groups usually lasted two or three years and then disbanded or turned into a social club (see Chaudhray and others, 2010).  NB as a founder-initiated and maintained support group that has had your devoted attention for nearly 42 years and has far surpassed the predicted lifespan! Congratulations on totally breaking longevity records!   

 

References

Chaudhray. S., Avis, M., and Munn-Giddings, C. (2010). The lifespan and life-cycle of self-help groups: A retrospective study of groups in Nottingham, UK. Health and Social Care in the Community, 18,4, 346-354.

Gerstel, N. (1987). Divorce and stigma. Social Problems, 34,2, 172-186.

Maton, K. I., Leventhal, G. S., Madara, E. J., & Mariesa J. (1989). Factors affecting the birth and death of mutual-help groups: The role of national affiliation, professional involvement, and member focal problem. American Journal of Community Psychology, 17(5), 643–671.