Group therapy is any therapeutic work that happens in a group (not one-on-one). There are a number of different group therapy modalities, including support groups, experiential therapy, psycho-education, and more.
Group therapy involves treatment as well as processing interaction between group members.
What is group therapy?
Group therapy typically involves a licensed therapist and 5-12 group members with a related problem or concern. Such concerns could be mental health disorders like depression or bipolar disorder, or struggling with drug addiction. Some groups are for those with a dual diagnosis (having both a mental disorder and a substance abuse issue at the same time).
Groups usually meet for 1-2 hours per week, and group members may also attend individual therapy sessions in addition to the group session each week. Some group members participate only in group sessions.
Therapists may recommend a client attend a group format for a number of reasons. First, receiving support from other group members experiencing similar issues can be a relief, since it shows someone they're not the only ones struggling.
Second, seeing others who are further along the path of recovery can provide both relief and encouragement that recovery is possible.
Third, hearing from different group members can inspire others to see that their problems may not always be as oppressive as they thought – others are in similar or worse situations.
Finally, group situations give members the chance to support others and give back, which can lead to feelings of self-worth, self-esteem, and connection.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are examples of support groups to which therapists often refer clients, in addition to individual sessions.
What does group therapy treat?
- Drug and alcohol addiction and other forms of substance abuse
- Anorexia and bulimia
- Behavioral addictions such as sex addiction or gambling addiction
- Depression and anxiety
- Mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and PTSD
- Sexual and relationship problems
- Grief, divorce, or loss or a loved one
- Panic disorders
- Shyness, loneliness, or low self-esteem
How does group therapy work?
Groups usually meet once a week for 1-2 hours and are led by one or more therapists, or facilitators (as in AA and NA).
Groups can cover a wide range of topics. Although most target a specific problem, other groups may focus on improving general skills or assisting those in the midst of a loss due to death or life transition (like divorce). Some groups are purely support groups, such as AA and NA. Others are required group therapy sessions dictated by a certain therapy modality, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
Those participating in group therapy benefit both from the interventions of the therapist as well as from other group members. Members get the chance to observe and listen to other people as well as get and give feedback, such that the entire group can benefit from one strategy or example.
What is a session like?
For many, sharing information with a group about one's life can seem intimidating at first. However, it usually takes participants just a few weeks to get comfortable, especially as they watch and learn from other group members. Participants are allowed to share to their own comfort level and are never forced to share something they don't want to.
Groups normally discuss a topic related to their group's specific concern. For example, in a drug addiction group they might begin by sharing triggers and coping skills that did or did not work over the past week. Group members take turns sharing and listening to each other as well as the therapist. An insight for one can often result in an insight for all, leading to an increased rate of healing and recovery.
What are the advantages of group therapy?
In group therapy, a therapist is able to treat multiple individuals at once, which lowers the cost. Group therapy can be as low as one-third the cost of individual therapy since both the attention and cost is divided among group members. Some groups may be offered free of cost to the larger community, particularly if run by a trained facilitator rather than a licensed therapist (this is the case for AA, NA, and other 12-step groups).
Clients are also able to gain coping skills more quickly by seeing what works and doesn't work for other group members. For example, one members of an AA group might share that he realized that after speaking to his father on the phone one night that week, he had the strong desire to drink. Someone else in the group might then identify that the same thing happens when they talk to one of their family members. Thus the insight of one can benefit all, and result in more rapid progress.
Communication skills are also also enhanced because group members are taught to and see modeling on how to communicate clearly and more effectively within the group setting. Group members also offer and receive feedback to one another, which can be a helpful process of sharing and connection. Members give and get valuable feedback from those who are often aware of both their struggles, strengths, weaknesses, and history.
Group therapy can be hugely rewarding, and is often reported to be by those who engage in it. It offers participants a safe and supportive environment to interact and connect with others who have similar concerns, and can produce stronger and longer-lasting results than individual therapy alone.