The Benefits of Providing Support

Who benefits from support? In fact, those who give support may benefit even more than those who receive it. In one study, recruited non-professionals with multiple sclerosis were trained in active listening and taught to provide support to sixty-seven other people with multiple sclerosis over a two-year period. The peer supporters were paid ten dollars an hour to provide telephone support for fifteen minutes a month throughout the two-year study. The peer supporters were recruited through several means. Some had volunteered to participate in a pilot group and were selected because they demonstrated an ability to communicate with others in the group and were willing to commit to a two-year effort. The Massachusetts chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommended others because they were helpful in volunteer activities. Peer supporters completed a questionnaire before beginning to give support, and again after one and two years of providing support. The sixty-seven participants who received support also completed questionnaires at the same intervals.

Benefits for the Listener

Three years after they finished providing active support, the peer telephone supporters were queried about the changes they noticed over the course of their participation in the study.  In this follow-up evaluation, the peer supporters reported improvement in more areas as compared to improvements experienced by the patients who received the support. They reported improved listening skills, a stronger awareness of the existence of a higher power, increased self-acceptance, and enhanced self-confidence.  Peer supporters also reported experiencing a sense of inner peace that allowed them to listen to others without judgment or interference.

Interestingly, those aspect of well-being accelerated during the second year of the study. As the supporters became more effective and more outer-directed, a shift occurred in the way they thought about themselves. Participants who received support exhibited change in a number of these areas as well, but the changes were less pronounced than those experienced by the people who provided support.

Constructing a Coherent Narrative

What brought about these positive changes for people giving support to others? The authors of the study propose that these shifts occurred because of the number of personal stories the peer supporters exchanged with the people they supported.   As they heard more and more stories of other people with multiple sclerosis facing challenges, the supporters were able to disengage from their usual ways of thinking about themselves.  In other words, as their focus moved from concern about themselves to concern for others, their attitudes about their own multiple sclerosis altered as well.  As one supporter commented: “It’s tough to get depressed because your helping someone.” Another supporter explained the changes this way: “There’s quietness when I’m talking to someone, and I’m really listening to them. I have to make an effort not to try to top them. It’s gotten easier. And I can listen, and I can become interested in what he’s talking about. That’s a change. There’s a quietness in the soul because of it.”

Schwartz, C. E. and Sendor, M. (1999). Helping others helps oneself: Response shift effects in peer support. Social Science & Medicine, 48, No. 11, 1563-1575.