Group therapy has long been an underutilized treatment method, but all signs point to a new era for this powerful modality. While data highlighted by the American Psychological Association (APA) indicates that group therapy currently makes up a mere five percent of treatment, experts have called for increased availability.
Advocates believe that group therapy can be as effective as individual treatment or, in some cases, even more effective, given its ability to dissipate long-held stigmas about mental health disorders.
With group therapy finally receiving the attention it has deserved all along, there is an exciting opportunity for therapists to pursue this compelling niche. Keep reading to discover the hidden power of this modality, as well as the caveats worth considering when selecting the most impactful solutions for patients from all walks of life.
What Is Group Therapy?
Group therapy draws on the power of connection to provide a unique and highly effective form of psychotherapy. Under this format, multiple patients meet to share their struggles and develop new skills under the guidance and supervision of a therapist. These groups may vary in how they are structured and what they discuss, but advocates believe that, if tailored appropriately, they can bring therapeutic benefits to a wider population.
Types of Group Therapy
Group therapy can take many forms. While it involves a gathering of several patients or clients — and strategic guidance from a highly trained psychotherapist — the structure of each session or set of sessions may be determined by who participates and which modalities are used.
Often, groups are arranged based on the type of disorder or addiction discussed; common examples include groups in which members are recovering from opioid addiction or eating disorders.
Additionally, group therapy is typically categorized as either psychoeducational or process-oriented, although some groups may incorporate elements from both approaches.
With psychoeducational groups, therapists primarily provide information, as opposed to promoting bonds between individual members. Under this approach, therapists function a lot like teachers.
The process-oriented model shifts this role to that of facilitator. While therapists may present some information, they spend far more time encouraging members to interact with one another.
Other impactful group therapy formats include:
- Dynamic group therapy
- Interpersonal process groups
- Skills development groups
- Group teletherapy
The Difference Between Therapy Groups and Support Groups
Therapy groups and support groups have a lot in common, with the terms even used interchangeably by some participants. However, several distinctions set these types of groups apart:
- Structure. Both therapy and support groups benefit from structured guidance, but this is far more likely when highly skilled psychotherapists are involved. Support groups tend to be a lot more casual in nature. While some basic ground rules may be set, these groups typically provide more freedom for members to express themselves as they see fit. This can be advantageous in some situations but may also increase the likelihood of specific participants dominating sessions or veering off into irrelevant or unhelpful topics.
- Commitment. While support group members are encouraged to attend as often as they can, there is a lowered expectation of being present for every meeting. In therapy groups, however, participants make a greater commitment to attending scheduled sessions and doing their homework in between these meetings. Therapy groups are more likely to be closed — only a few specific members can join — while an open format is more frequently employed for support groups.
- Timeline. Often, therapy groups have set starting and ending dates. While some people may continue to participate in these groups for years, others may be involved for a matter of weeks or months before they are ready to move on. Typically, the completion of a group therapy ‘term’ has some element of formality. Support groups, however, are scheduled consistently, with no specific start or end for participants to adhere to.
Group Therapy vs. Individual Therapy
Both group and individual therapy require oversight from highly trained professionals. That is where the similarities end, however.
Each additional participant brings new challenges and opportunities to the table. As we will discuss later, these differences drive some of the most noteworthy advantages of group therapy, although they can also contribute to this modality’s various downsides.
Distinctions worth mentioning include:
- Number of participants. This is the most obvious and impactful difference between group and individual therapy — or even family or couples therapy, in which a few closely related clients work together on shared concerns. With group therapy, however, each session may include anywhere between five and fifteen members.
- Scheduled sessions. Both individual and group modalities are most effective when clients meet regularly with therapists. With individual therapy, however, clients often have a lot of freedom to schedule sessions as they see fit. Group participants must commit to meeting at a specific time each week and often for a particular number of weeks or months.
- Group rules. To ensure a positive and productive session, each group therapy participant must commit to following a core set of rules or standards, which lay the foundation for a harmonious environment. Technically speaking, there are also clear expectations laid out for individual therapy sessions — but additional rules may be needed in a group setting, not to mention more stringent enforcement.
Advantages of Group Therapy
Group therapy can be an amazing opportunity for a variety of people. Benefits may vary based on each participant’s personal circumstances and ability to adapt to a group setting — but in general, there is a lot to love about this modality. Below, we identify a few of the most compelling benefits that both therapists and potential therapy group members identify:
Sense of Community
Addiction and mental health disorders thrive in secrecy. While working with a therapist or psychologist can foster a much-needed sense of connection, group therapy expands on this to help patients or clients feel less alone. This is one of the most frequently mentioned benefits of group therapy — and the one that can convince even therapy-adverse individuals to try it.
Any session with a skilled therapist can provide a valuable new perspective, but this effect is amplified when conversing with a room full of people. While group therapy participants may belong to a similar demographic or suffer from a similar illness, they still bring distinct views and experiences to the table. Exposure to these can be helpful for clients who often feel stuck in their own heads.
Develop Social Skills
Many therapy groups are specifically designed to help participants improve their social skills. This, in turn, can help group members make stronger relationships with all kinds of people. Social support is vital when dealing with mental health concerns, so the ability to make friends is crucial.
Listening skills are a key area of focus, with group members encouraged to actively listen and, hopefully, gain insight from what their peers have to say. These newfound skills may also include healthy solutions for conflict resolution, which can often be a huge source of struggle prior to participating in group therapy.
In an ideal world, the cost of mental health treatment would not be the chief factor in determining which modality is appropriate. In the real world, however, this is a vital consideration for many clients who may not be able to afford individual sessions on a regular basis. This is where groups can prove valuable; while they ideally will not be relied on in lieu of traditional, individual therapy, they can provide a cost-effective form of support.
Fellow participants often function as cheerleaders, providing a powerful reminder that every member matters —and that baby steps should be celebrated.
With this positive feedback comes a greater desire to take further steps on the path to recovery, even when this might not be fully appreciated by people from other walks of life.
While therapists can certainly fill this role in a one-on-one setting, such celebrations feel a lot more meaningful when they involve an entire group of participants who fully understand how much strength it truly takes to overcome mental health struggles.
Motivation to Attend
Sometimes, the biggest difficulty with therapy is a lack of motivation to attend appointments. While many clients do an excellent job of meeting consistently with their therapists, some are tempted to skip these sessions. In these cases, group therapy can (but will not always) provide a powerful incentive. For some, the camaraderie of a group is more than enough to overcome any hesitation to attend.
Help With Transitions
Often, group therapy plays heavily into transitions between intensive therapy and outpatient arrangements. As patients move from spending several hours per day in therapy sessions to just once or twice a week, group meetings can bridge the gap and provide a valuable source of support. Fellow group members may also be going through these transitions, so participants can take solace in knowing that they are not alone.
Protections for Group Members
As compared to casual support groups, structured group therapy arrangements provide ample protection for members. While there is no way to completely prevent confidentiality issues when multiple group members are involved, members may be required to sign confidentiality agreements or follow strict rules such as using first names only.
Disadvantages of Group Therapy
While group therapy can be beneficial in many contexts, there are a few select situations in which it is less than ideal. Skeptics worry that it will be used too frequently instead of individual therapy, preventing patients from getting the full benefit of more targeted treatments. Other potential disadvantages could include:
- It can be difficult to open up in a group setting. Clients need to feel safe in order to get the most out of therapy, but this is not always easily achieved, even in the best-run therapy groups. Some people will simply find it easier to share their struggles and foster trusting connections in a one-on-one setting. Those in the initial stages of treatment for social anxiety disorders will often find it especially difficult to handle this group environment, although the potential for social skills development may make this approach more compelling later on.
- Confidentiality concerns. Individual therapy may present a few confidentiality challenges, but these are typically limited to the most severe cases in which therapists may feel compelled to seek additional help for the good of the patient. As group members enter the equation, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to enforce confidentiality.
- Scheduling complications. While finding time for therapy sessions is rarely easy, this takes on a new level of challenge when several group members need to make room in their schedule for weekly sessions. These cannot easily be rescheduled, nor can members get away with simply ducking out when they do not feel up to therapy. These sessions simply are not as impactful when group members are missing.
Many of these downsides can be mitigated simply by ensuring that only the most highly skilled therapists facilitate these groups. It takes a unique skill set to handle these sessions, as they can amplify the already significant challenges present in individual therapy — while also adding the inherent difficulty of keeping every group member on track. With the right therapist, however, these challenges can be overcome, and members can make the most of group therapy’s distinct advantages.
Prepare for a Rewarding Career as a Group Therapist
Would you like to make a difference by facilitating group therapy? It takes extensive training to succeed as a group therapist, but you could recognize the value of your hard work as you aid patients in their recovery from addiction, mental health disorders, and a variety of other problems.
Post University’s counseling degree programs include the Online Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and the Online Master’s in Counseling and Human Services. You could also consider enrolling in one of our graduate certificate programs: Online Grad Certificate in Professional Counseling or Online Grad Certificate in Drug and Alcohol Counseling.
We would love to support you as you pursue your personal and professional goals — and as you inspire others to do the same. Contact us today to learn more about our counseling programs and the role they could play in preparing you for your dream career.
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