WHEN MARY JANE Wright learned that her 32-year-old son, Donald Kahrs, a staff sergeant in a helicopter unit of the Seventh Cavalry, was ordered to the Persian Gulf, she felt the sort of panic that demanded action.
"He told me, 'I don't really need anything, but don't let the people back home forget about us,'" she recalls.
So Wright, who works as office manager for Harry M. Stevens Maintenance Services, started a support group for families and friends of service members in the Persian Gulf. This chapter of the Operation Orange Ribbon Support Group, which meets Wednesday evenings in Bishop Cummins Reformed Episcopal Church in Catonsville, is also open to the general public.
Last week, roughly 50 people attended; about half were relatives of service members, Wright says. People fashioned bows from orange ribbons -- which has become a popular symbol of the Persian Gulf conflict -- shared pictures and letters from Saudi Arabia, and talked and talked and talked.
"The group helps people identify their stress and lets other people help them through some of their fears," Wright says. "For me, the support has just been overwhelming. Going down the street and seeing those orange ribbons on mailboxes and cars is like a comforting hand. I like to help other people, and this group has provided the avenue."
During the past two weeks, millions of Americans have gathered together to share their shock and concern about the war. Although support groups have existed on military bases during previous wars, experts say the Persian Gulf war may be the first to spur such widespread public awareness of the benefits of self-help.
"Such groups were not very visible during the Vietnam War because the whole notion of social support has come into its own since then," says Leon Levy, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has researched the self-help movement extensively.
Recognition of structured group support, also known as self-help, came slowly to the professional health care community, Levy says. Until the early 1970s, many doctors would not acknowledge there was any value to people with common problems helping one another.
Since the formation of the first support group in the 1930s -- Alcoholics Anonymous is generally credited with launching the model in 1935 -- self-help has become part of the fabric of America. Today, experts estimate that as many as 6.2 to 14 million adult Americans participate in one or more support groups each year. Groups range from providing help for overeaters to support for people with AIDS. There are self-help groups for every kind of addict -- and the people who must live with them. Some groups form to air the grief of death or the pain of physical abuse. Almost every problem that plagues Americans has a self-help group struggling to confront it.
The support group is basically an American phenomenon, Levy says, although the concept has become popular internationally during the past 20 years.
UMBC psychology professor and scholar Kenneth Maton says groups have flourished in America because of many factors including the modern pattern of moving away from traditional family support; dissatisfaction with professional help; an increased focus on self-reliance; a lot of media coverage during the past 20 years and a new societal openness which makes it possible for both victims and attackers to seek help for such crimes as rape and child abuse.
Self-help groups began to develop rapidly during the 1960s and early 1970s, a period which also gave rise to the rights of consumers. A growing disenchantment with the availability and effectiveness of professional health care encouraged the movement, Levy says.
"Originally self-help groups were seen as anti-establishment, as alternatives to professional help. Today the establishment sees there's a large role self-help can play in dealing with distress and illness. Support groups are now seen as complementary to professional forms of helping rather than in competition," he says.
Unlike a formal group therapy program whose members receive help from a professional, a support group encourages its members to serve as helpers as well as recipients. And the friendships that develop from these supportive relationships often thrive outside the group.
Kenneth Maton has found that support groups last longer if the leadership responsibilities are shared among group members and if there is a strong sense of unity. He lists Alcoholics Anonymous and Compassionate Friends, a group for bereaved parents, as among the most effective and enduring.
Recently completing a four-year survey of support groups in New Jersey, Maton found that the state's roughly 3,000 were growing at a rate of about 10 percent a year. (Similar figures are not available for Maryland.) And observers predict the self-help movement will continue to thrive because it fills a crucial gap in America's health care system.
It may provide an important degree of spiritual care, as well.