How Does Group Therapy Work?

Firstly, it’s useful to define what we mean by Group therapy. Medical News Today defines it as follows:

“Group therapy is a form of psychotherapy that involves one or more mental health practitioners who deliver psychotherapy to several individuals in each session.”

Some of these individuals may also attend personal therapy sessions, but some may simply engage in the group sessions.

Historically, group therapy in the UK was pioneered by S.H. Foulkes and Wilfred Bion, who used this method as a means of treating combat fatigue during the Second World war. However, it was actually first used before this in America, after Joseph H. Pratt, Trigant Burrow and Paul Schilder founded the approach in the early 20th century. After the second world war, several psychotherapists, including Irwin Yalom, developed the concept further. With regard to modern group therapy in the UK, it is Foulkes’s theory model which has been the most influential.

Group Therapy is now used in different organisations, such as charities who deal with particular issues such as bereavement, addiction, homelessness, family conflict and so on. These group sessions may take place in various settings, such as community centres, healthcare settings, residential homes and hostels, as well as online. Moreover, group therapy can help with a wide range of psychological difficulties including:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • relationship difficulties
  • post traumatic symptoms
  • social phobias
  • grief and loss
  • conditions such as OCD
  • addiction
  • eating disorders

So what are the benefits of this type of therapy?

  • An obvious benefit is cost. Personal therapy is not always affordable for everyone and group therapy is much cheaper and more-widely accessible. Similarly, many organisations which provide group therapy with a qualified psychotherapist would not be able to provide an individualised counselling service.
  • Group therapy relies on participants being able and willing to openly share their thoughts, feelings and experiences with others. Although this can be a real challenge for many people initially, it does allow the therapist to be able to see how they relate to others and how they behave in different social situations. This may be really useful if their issues are related to relationship anxieties.
  • Group therapy provides a safe space – there are strict boundaries and expectations, for example, regarding confidentiality, respect and acceptance of others, irrespective of what they disclose and how they feel (of course, the usual safeguarding rules also apply as well, just as they would in personal therapy). This allows participants to share fully, knowing that they will not be judged for their feelings, thoughts or behaviours.
  • Sharing difficulties, challenges and sometimes successes, enables people to receive support and encouragement, motivation where necessary and also feel hopeful for their own recovery. It also enables them to explore coping strategies, listen to what is working for others and feel understood and listened to – not just by the therapist but other people who are also going through similar issues and experiences. There is a real sense of ‘being in it together’, which alleviates that feeling of isolation, which many people feel when they are struggling with their mental health.
  • During the group people are exposed to different points of view and have the opportunity to learn about the experiences of others. This can really widen their perspective and help them get their own issues into some perspective and context.

Is Group Therapy right for everyone?

Of course, anyone who is considering therapy of any sort, needs to think carefully about their own individual needs. With regard to group therapy in particular, there are certain things that people might want to think about:

  • How comfortable do they feel about opening up in front of others? The nature of group therapy is that, to benefit fully from the experience, they will be talking about perhaps very personal experiences and/or emotions. If they would find that intensely difficult, then maybe it isn’t the best form of therapy for that individual.
  • People may have to try a few different groups to find the one that suits them the best. This is about finding the best match in terms of the therapist and perhaps also, the types of activity that they do within the group. Some groups may even have an element of role playing – which some people find very challenging.
  • Lastly, group therapy is not intended for crisis situations, such as suicidal ideation. In these circumstances, personal 1:1 therapy is more appropriate, as this requires more focused attention from a trained therapist.

Group therapy is an effective way of accessing therapy – and a great alternative to personal therapy for individuals who can’t access that, or who like to have the support of others.

“The bond that people build in the group becomes an important part of the therapeutic process. Once you join a group you belong to the group, even after members leave they are remembered as a part of the group's experience and history. Many people find the idea of being part of something bigger than them containing and supportive.”

- Counsellor Claire Barnes explores the advantages of group therapy in the Counselling Directory.