Group therapy can help people improve their mental health. It involves at least one mental health professional and two or more people in therapy. Many use it to address a specific mental health concern. The group dynamic often helps people feel supported as they move forward. Whether your goal is growth, improving social skills, or something else, group therapy could help you achieve it.
Group therapy can help people work toward and meet many types of goals. Sometimes, a therapist might suggest group therapy over other forms of treatment. This could be because it is a good fit for that individual or better for treating their concern. Therapy groups can help people whose mental health makes it difficult to get through daily life. Others may not have pressing concerns but still wish for training or support. They can also benefit from group therapy. Some of the topics addressed in group therapy include:
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- Domestic violence or abuse
- Communication issues
- Food and eating issues
- Anger management
- Grief and loss
Keep in mind that a therapist may not recommend group therapy as a treatment option at first. One reason is because it can be difficult to share personal information in a group setting, especially at the beginning of treatment.
Many people use group therapy alongside medication, individual therapy, or other types of care. You may be doubltful about receiving treatment in a room of strangers. However, there are many benefits to participating in group therapy.
Members of a group can provide advice on how to cope with situations that many in the group find challenging. They can also lend social support in difficult times. The diversity of a group setting can help people find new strategies for maintaining good mental health. Also, listening to others speak about their personal experiences can help put your own thoughts into perspective. Group therapy can help comfort people by allowing them to realize they are not alone.
Group therapy is not the same as a self-help or support group. The main difference is that each group therapy session is led by at least one qualified therapist. During sessions, a therapist teaches research-backed techniques. Other types of groups cannot guarantee a qualified therapist will be present to teach concepts, skills, and practices at this level.
There are many different types of therapeutic groups, but most therapy groups can be divided into two main approaches. These approaches are psychoeducational group therapy and process-oriented group therapy.
- Psychoeducational groups provide members with information about specific issues. They may also teach healthy coping skills. These groups are led by a qualified therapist who directs sessions and sets goals. Bonds between group members are less important here, as the therapist provides most of the content through instruction. In this type of group therapy, the therapist takes on the role of teacher.
- Process-oriented groups focus on the group experience. While the therapist leads the group discussion, they act as a facilitator rather than an instructor. They are careful not to become the center of attention. Group members participate by engaging in group discussions and activities. Sharing in these kinds of activities can lead to a sense of belonging and increased self-confidence. In process-oriented group therapy, the group is in charge of their sessions.
Some people wish to gain skills such as parenting, caregiving, or stress management. They may benefit from psychoeducational group therapy. Others seek personal growth to deal with a major life transition, such as divorce, retirement, or aging. These individuals could benefit from process-oriented group therapy.
Group therapy is usually led by one or two therapists trained to lead therapeutic groups. Group sizes can range from six to twelve members. While groups may be small or large, the group process may be less effective in much larger groups.
Typically, groups meet for 1-2 hours each week and address specific concerns shared by group members. The minimum number of recommended sessions is often six, but many people attend for a full year. Group therapy sessions can be held in a variety of settings, such as community centers, therapy offices, hospitals, libraries, members’ houses, or churches. Some go to individual therapy in addition to group therapy. People who have received mental health treatment in the past may choose to participate in only group therapy.
Most groups meet in a quiet room with the chairs arranged to make sure each person can see everyone else. To begin, members may introduce themselves, discuss their progress, or share the reason they are in group therapy. Group activities depend on the style of the therapist and the group's goals. Some therapists have planned lessons for each session. Others may promote a more free-form discussion style.
Group therapy meetings can be open or closed.
- In open groups, new members can join the group at any time.
- In a closed group, all members join at the same time. Only they participate in the sessions.
It is often easier to join an open group, but it may take longer for new members to get to know existing members. Members of a closed group get to know each other at the same time but may wait longer until they can join a group that works for them.
Activities in group therapy can promote communication, trust, and personal growth. They may be dialogue-driven, such as reading and sharing stories. Or, they may be physically engaging, team-focused exercises. If used, ice breakers can help group members get to know each other in an informal way.
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Physical activities, such as dancing or cooking, require working together to achieve a goal. These exercises aim to build trust and respect. Other activities such as painting, acting, and playing music can be used to promote creative expression. Role-playing, wilderness ventures, and other games may be used to strengthen trust between group members. These can also help group members develop confidence in themselves and in people outside of therapy.
Group therapy may seem scary at first, but it often becomes much easier over time. People who do their best to engage fully in group activities typically get the most out of group treatment.
Those interested in group therapy can consult with a therapist or physician for suggestions on how to find the best group for them. Medical centers and hospitals may also have information on available groups.
When choosing a group, it can be helpful to consider:
- Group size
- What kinds of issues the group addresses
- How much you wish to share with your group members
- If group therapy should be used along with another type of treatment
- If the group is open or closed
- If the group is process-oriented or psychoeducational
Potential group members have the right to know about the group's rules, goals, and methods when they first meet with the therapist. Rules about confidentiality should be discussed at the beginning.
All group members must agree to protect the identities of fellow members. They must also keep the content of each session confidential. Unless permission is given, nobody should discuss another member’s personal history with anyone else.
It is important to remember that confidentiality agreements are not absolute. Therapists are obligated by law to tell the authorities if members express intent to harm themselves or others.
The group therapist must maintain a professional, respectful, and ethical environment. They need to keep sessions free from discrimination, sexual misconduct, or behaviors that make a member feel uncomfortable, harassed, or threatened. It is also the therapist’s responsibility to ensure group therapy sessions are nonjudgmental and productive for everyone involved.
Group therapy became popular during World War II. At that time, there were not enough mental health providers to treat war-related mental health issues. However, research on the power of the group had begun decades earlier. In 1895, French polymath, Gustave Le Bon, published The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Le Bon shared his belief that a person’s behavior is affected when they enter a group setting. He observed that people in crowds gave up personal interests in favor of the group and became less conscious of the consequences of their actions.
The most prominent advocate of group therapy may be Irvin Yalom, author of The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. Yalom’s research emphasizes the impact group therapy has on people. It also identifies factors that contribute to healing in a group setting. Others who have contributed to this approach include Sigmund Freud, Jacob Moreno, Eric Berne, and Carl Rogers.
- Brief interventions and brief therapies for substance abuse. (2012). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64947/pdf/Bookshelf_NBK64947.pdf
- Fehr, S. S. (2003). Introduction to group therapy: A practical guide (2nd ed.). Binghampton, NY: Haworth Press.
- Group therapy vs. individual therapy. (n.d.). American Addiction Centers. Retrieved from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/therapy-treatment/group-individual
- Psychotherapy: Understanding group therapy. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/group-therapy.aspx
- Steckl, C. (2014, June 13). Which type of therapeutic group is right for you? Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/which-type-of-therapeutic-group-is-right-for-you