The idea behind group therapy is pretty simple: it’s therapy with a group of people who share similar issues and experiences.
A more detailed definition comes from the American Psychological Association and defines group therapy as involving “one or more psychologists who lead a group of roughly five to 15 patients…Many groups are designed to target a specific problem, such as depression, obesity, panic disorder, social anxiety, chronic pain, or substance abuse. Other groups focus more generally on improving social skills, or helping people deal with a range of issues such as anger, shyness, loneliness, and low self esteem.”
Yes, the concept might be simple, but there’s a lot more to group therapy than a bunch of people sitting around and talking. Good group therapy is lead by specially trained and certified therapists who have experience in helping people make significant changes within a group setting.
If you’re here, you’ve probably been considering whether or not group therapy is right for you and whether or not it will help you feel better. In fact, you might even be weighing group therapy against individual therapy.
But before we get to the advantages and disadvantages of group therapy, and how it differs from individual therapy, first let’s take a look at what exactly group therapy is and how it got started.
A Brief History of Group Therapy
According to the American Mental Health Foundation, the first official group therapy session took place in Boston in 1906. Dr. J.H. Pratt provided group instruction about home care to tuberculosis patients who could not afford institutional help. He noticed the “beneficial emotional side effects” that the group instruction had for his patients.
Between 1906 and 1956 psychotherapy came of age and doctors all around the world were treating patients in a group setting. But it wasn’t until the Second World War that group therapy became a widely accepted form of treatment – especially for war veterans. In 1944 the U.S. Army issued a training bulletin that noted patients responded well to treatment in groups, and recommended the widespread adoption of the group method.
Today, group therapy has become a well-known practice and is used to treat a variety of mental health issues: addiction, substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, and much more. Studies have been showing that group therapy, when properly applied, can be just as effective as individual therapy.
The Many Advantages of Group Therapy
While there is broad consensus about the benefits of group therapy, that does not mean that this form of therapy is better, or worse, than another form of therapy. Good therapy, be it group, individual, couples, family, art, no matter the format, will help you make positive changes and feel better. But there are distinct advantages to group therapy.
You’re Not Alone
Groups are made up of people who are experiencing the same or comparable issues. When you’ve experienced trauma or other intense emotional situations, it can feel like you’re alone and the only one who has these feelings.
As part of a group, you see and hear first-hand from people who’ve felt those emotions or had similar experiences. This can reduce the sting of loneliness feelings of isolation.
A Sense of Belonging
In a group session, you’re surrounded by people who know what you’re going through because they’re going through it themselves. You don’t have to feel like an outsider because everyone in the group knows exactly where you’re coming from.
A Network of Support
People who have been through the same situations have a different perspective than those who haven’t. You can get advice and support from others who have been in your shoes without the fear of being judged by someone who doesn’t understand.
When you listen to other people talk about their struggles and problems, it can help you gain a little bit of perspective about your own struggles. That kind of connection can help you feel understood and can also help you see that there’s hope because other people have gone through the same circumstance and survived.
Learn New Strategies
Sure, a trained therapist is there to guide the group and share specific strategies, but you can also learn from the other people in the group, too. Everyone in the group will be at different places in their own recovery or treatment, and will be able to offer their unique perspective, skills, or ways of coping, with the rest of the group.
Groups can also be a safe space to try new strategies by role playing without being judged. Plus, group members can provide feedback on how the strategies work, and how your actions come across, which can help you become more self aware.
Easier on the Wallet
In general, group therapy sessions are less expensive than one-to-one sessions with a therapist because the cost of the therapist’s time is spread out over multiple group members.
Disadvantages of Group Therapy
These are many, but not all, of the advantages to group therapy. But before you join a group, consider some of these disadvantages, too.
Speaking In Front of a Group
For those who have a severe social phobia, it might be difficult to speak in front of the group. Additionally, for members who have experienced traumatic events, it could be triggering or overwhelming to have to take part in discussions about abuse or trauma. And having to share intimate details of past experiences with relative strangers might be difficult for someone with social fears to do.
Possible Personality Clash
The larger the group of people, the more likely to have personality clashes among group members. Also, since you won’t be the sole focus of of the session, treatment is likely to be diluted and it could take longer to see results.
Lack of Confidentiality
With an individual therapist you are sure to have confidentiality; in fact, that’s part of the legal protection of talking to a therapist. But with a group that goes right out the window. Each person in the group could potentially be the “breach” despite receiving instructions to the contrary.
Group sessions usually take place at specific days and times that might not be convenient to you and could make rescheduling an issue. It’s not like making a one-on-one appointment with an individual therapist. The day and time are usually set and you can either make it – or you can’t.
Need to Be High Functioning
In order to get the most out of group therapy, you need to be able to function with a degree of normalcy. People who are in crisis or suicidal are not good candidates for group therapy.
Group Therapy vs Individual Therapy
Now that you know more about group therapy, you might be wondering which type of therapy is better – group or individual?
The answer is pretty simple: neither. It’s not a matter of one being inherently better than the other, they are both just different types of treatment for problems that many people face.
Which type of treatment is better is really up to the individual receiving the treatment. One might work better for you than the other, and what works for you might not work for the next person. These two types of therapy can even be used in conjunction with one another, which, again, depends on the person.
Group Therapy vs Support Groups
But what about group therapy and support groups? Aren’t they the same thing?
In short, no, they are totally different things. They have different goals, work on different issues, select members differently, have different rules about personal relationships outside of the group, and just plain work differently.
The main goal of group therapy is to help people work on changing a part of their life that’s causing them major problems. The group members are trying to gain a better understanding about themselves by interacting with others and examining how they think and feel. Members of a therapy group often need to be interviewed before they can join the group, and are not allowed to interact outside of the group.
In a support group the main goal is to help people cope with an issue that they can’t change, like dealing with the death of a loved one or going through cancer treatments. It’s easy to get involved with a support group; you really just have to show up and want to be a part of it. Though there might be a leader, there’s no formal way by which members are admitted – and they’re usually encouraged to continue their support of one another outside of the group boundary.
Is Group Therapy Right For You?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that question. If you’re feeling like you could use some extra support, please consult with a therapist to decide the best course of treatment. Most therapists will offer a brief, free consultation to decide what kind of help would be most beneficial for you.
If you’re feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or anxious and could use a little extra support, the caring and compassionate staff at Connolly Counseling are here to help you out. Though we no longer offer group therapy sessions, we do have a lot of caring therapists with lots of experience who can help you get through this rough patch.
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