What is group therapy? Group therapy is an intervention in which generally 8 to 10 people struggling with the same issue meet together to discuss it under the leadership of a professional therapist. It has been proven to be effective in assisting people with a wide range of mental health, substance abuse and relationship problems. There are both pros and cons to working through problems in this type of setting.
Pros to Group Therapy:
1. A Sense of Belonging
One of the values of being in group therapy is a sense of belonging to something bigger than one's self. Just like being part of a fraternity or sorority, or a fan of a winning team, being part of a group with common issues can help one feel included, special, and valued.
Accountability can be a key part of the healing process for a variety of issues. The group setting promotes this as individual members are encouraged to share their progress and their struggles. Members are motivated to follow through with their planned objectives when they are aware they will be sharing their progress with others. Members can also encourage each other to take positive steps that they might not necessarily want to take, or wouldn't take on their own. Group members can be more pushy, in a good way, than an individual therapist.
3. Learning from Others
As group members share their successes and struggles, the individual can learn from someone who has been in a similar circumstance. Very often, professional therapists have not experienced the same problems their clients struggle to overcome. Hearing advice and warnings from someone in a similar situation may have more credibility and is more likely to be heeded.
4. Opportunities for Practicing Social Skills
One of the unique aspects of group therapy is the ability to practice good communication and social graces with peers. This is sometimes difficult to accomplish with an individual therapist. This practice may occur through planned role plays, but may also occur naturally as group members interact with each other during the sessions.
5. Heeding the Mistakes of Others
In a group setting, one has the ability to watch others make mistakes and learn from them. For example, in a substance abuse group, one member may go to a club thinking drugs would not be available--and therefore not present a temptation--and find out they were wrong. When that member shares the information with the group, it can keep another member from going to the same club.
6. An Understanding Ear
Since groups are made up of people who have similar experiences and goals, a level of understanding can be achieved that is often not matched in individual therapy or in the community at large. Family members and friends may not be able to understand one's challenges like someone who is facing the same challenges. Family members and friends also may not be able to talk about things that make them uncomfortable.
Group sessions typically cost less than individual sessions and clinicians are less likely to charge a fee if you do not show up. Some group sessions are paid for as a block purchase ahead of time, which may encourage one to attend all the sessions that were advance-paid.
Cons to Group Therapy:
1. Social Fears
If you are very shy or concerned about the opinions of others, you may not feel comfortable talking in the group setting. If you are not able to share with the group, you will not gain the benefit of self-expression and other members may become suspicious or resentful of you.
2. Confidentiality Concerns
While most group leaders emphasize the importance of confidentiality, it is not guaranteed. Group members do not have a legal obligation to maintain confidentiality. One may come to the group and discover someone they know is also in the group. For example, one may show up to a group for the first time and find that their boss is in the group. Now the boss knows by your presence that you are struggling in that area and you know the same about your boss even before a word is said.
3. Not Appropriate for Crisis Support
Group is not an appropriate place to address someone in crisis. Group therapists will attempt to weed out persons who are in crisis. People in crisis need more individualized attention than the group setting can provide. It also would not be appropriate to have one person monopolize the group session because their individual need is more urgent or their current crisis must be addressed.
4. Hurting People May Be Hurtful
One cannot guarantee that the members of the group will be kind, polite or helpful. Group members may be blunt, rude or otherwise inappropriate in their comments. While the group leader will intervene if this happens, words can hurt and, obviously, cannot be taken back.
5. Sense of Loss
At some point the group will end. Sometimes this is by design and the group was only intended to last for a weekend or a couple of months. Other times people will move out of the group as their circumstances change. Either way, the likelihood of maintaining relationships with the members of the group is slim. This can create a sense of loss, especially if the group members shared personal information and benefited from hearing from each other.
6. Group Instability
Groups can either be "open" or "closed." In an open group, group members are admitted at any time and can leave at any time. In a closed group, members only enter the group at the beginning or during limited times. As group members come and go, the dynamics of the group changes. Sometimes older members can be closed off to new members. Frequent changes can disrupt the sense of safety and trust which is key to the group process.
Some Parting Thoughts
Group therapy can be very helpful in the right circumstances, with the right people and a good therapist facilitating group discussions. Before attending a group, carefully weigh the pros and cons and discuss any concerns you may have with the group leader.