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Benefits of group therapy in mental health

Let’s face it. Seeing a therapist is not easy. To benefit from the process, you really have to put yourself out there. It’s a very personal experience that involves disclosing things about yourself and your feelings that you wouldn’t be inclined to tell your friends or family, let alone a stranger. In doing so, especially at first, you undoubtedly will experience feelings of vulnerability that may cause discomfort and that’s just talking to one person in the privacy of their office. These days those same encounters can be more challenging because they are over the phone or through video.

Therapy, however, is not limited to seeking counsel from an individual therapist. Group therapy provides a rather effective avenue for treatment of behavioral health issues. Typically, group therapy sessions are led by one or more therapists working with several people at the same time concerning a condition or lived experience for which all members of the group are seeking treatment. While group therapy can be used alone, it is more commonly used with individual therapy and, possibly, medication.

Yet, some may feel reluctant to participate in group therapy because of a heightened sense of vulnerability – more people, more exposure. But, if you can get past that feeling, the benefits of group therapy can be quite rewarding, especially for those suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, bipolar disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, social phobias and substance use disorders.

Here are just some of the benefits to group therapy:

1. Camaraderie.

One of the most important benefits is learning that there are others like you suffering from the same thing. Oftentimes there are strong feelings of isolation and alienation when dealing with a mental health issue that makes seeking treatment difficult. With group therapy, you are with people who are dealing with the same or similar issues. This common understanding of a difficult experience nurtures trust and makes any judgment a lot less likely. Sharing feelings with the group can also help relieve the pain or stress you may be feeling.   

2. Different perspectives.

Group therapy, by its very nature, involves input from a variety of perspectives. With different personalities and experiences, people tend to look at issues and problems differently. By seeing how other people handle these issues and problems, you can incorporate different strategies to address your own. Plus, typically, members of the group will be at different stages in addressing their treatment and will be able to offer to others their experiences and ways of coping.

3. Accountability.

While peer pressure is normally not perceived as a positive, with group therapy subtle forms of it can be. Now, this doesn’t mean judging someone or making them feel guilty or attempting to bully someone into behaving a certain way. But with other members of the group providing positive feedback and advice for addressing challenges, a feeling of accountability occurs from wanting to please and be accepted by the group, which can help push you forward toward achieving your goals.

4. Confidence.

Having the camaraderie, fellowship and support of group members provide a type of safety net that builds confidence. This confidence enables you to push yourself outside of the group, knowing that even if you stumble, you’ve got others to fall back upon.

5. Self-discovery.

All of us have blind spots about ourselves, some of which may hold us back from effectively addressing those things that may be at the root of our problems. Through interacting with members of the group, you will see reflections of yourself from their perspectives, allowing for those blind spots to be uncovered and improving your ability to cope with the situations for which you need help.

6. Transitions.

Full or partial in-patient treatment often includes a significant amount of group therapy that patients grow accustomed to and feel is critical to their continued treatment. Out-patient group therapy assures that such treatment is accessible and continual.

7. Confidentiality.

Just like with individual therapy, group therapy requires participants to maintain confidentiality outside of the group. Granted, members of the group aren’t subject to the same ethical constraints as licensed therapists, but members are typically (and should be) required to sign a confidentiality agreement. Of course, such agreements can be broken but, given the shared experiences of group members, there is a real ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ feeling. Also, first names or initials can be used to provide further comfort.

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At first, the idea of participating in group therapy might seem intimidating. Who wants to share their story with strangers? But group therapy, in which one or more psychologists lead a group of 5 to 15 people, can be very beneficial. In fact, “participants are often surprised by how rewarding their experience can be,” says Ben Johnson, PhD, ABPP, a clinical psychologist, director of Rhode Island Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Coaching, and a clinical assistant professor at the Warren Albert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, R.I. “I’m a big fan of group therapy.”

Patti Cox, PhD, CGP, in private practice in New York and president of the Eastern Group Psychotherapy Society, a regional affiliate of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, says anyone can benefit from group therapy “What’s important is to be in the right group at the right time,” she says. “An acute crisis is not the best time to start group therapy because your needs are so great.”

Groups generally meet once or twice a week for 90 minutes to two hours. How much people want to reveal about themselves is very individual, but there’s security in knowing that what’s said in group, stays in group.

Benefits of Group Therapy

Here’s how group therapy for mental health treatment can help:

Groups provide support. Hearing from others with similar issues helps you see that you’re not alone in having challenges, whether you’re grappling with panic attacks, depression, or another mental health issue, Johnson says. Many people experience a sense of relief.

Groups provide a sounding board. If, for example, you talk about a fight you had with your partner, group members can see things in the way you present it that you don’t. “Hearing from other people about how you come across can be very powerful,” Johnson says. “You get a wider range of perspectives on your situation, and that can help you deal with your problems better.”

Groups can propel you forward. Hearing how other members successfully overcame their fear of flying or how they confronted a family member over drug abuse can be very encouraging. “Patients often push themselves harder when they see what others are doing,” Johnson says.

Groups promote social skills. “Groups not only help to ease that sense of isolation, but also give the opportunity to practice re-engaging with people,” Johnson says. By participating in a group, you see that you can get along with others.

Group therapy costs less than individual counseling. Some people believe that, because group therapy costs less, it’s not as good, but “that’s not the case at all,” Cox says. “Group therapy can be incredibly powerful.”

Groups teach you about yourself. “Every person in the group holds up a mirror and you get to see yourself through their eyes,” Cox says. It’s a way of uncovering the blind spots that may be blocking your ability to overcome your issues.

Sharing Can Be Healing

Like many people, Traci Barr, 51, of Greenville, S.C., who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teen, was skeptical that she could benefit from a group. However, three years ago, after a failed suicide attempt, Barr went into group therapy while recovering in the hospital.

“I had a much more open mind to it because, at that point, I had nothing left to lose,” she says. “I was going to do whatever the doctors told me, and doctors told me I would benefit from group therapy.”

Right away, though, Barr found that the suggestions the group offered were exactly what she needed.

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“The group helped me most with coping skills,” she says. “I learned very simple and very effective things — such as what boundaries are and not to allow things in my life that were not good for my manic side.” Barr also found that sharing her story with others was “very meaningful and very healing.”

The group experience, Barr says, “definitely helped me over the hump.” From there, she says, it was a matter of building on small victories — going from being unable to do laundry to launching a new career as a chef and now being able to make presentations about healthy eating in front of large crowds.

How to Get the Most From Group

Try these steps to maximize group therapy:

Take a pledge. Each group should have participants sign a contract that spells out what’s expected of them, Cox says. Knowing this can help you overcome any fears about participating.

Participate. You might have days when you don’t feel like talking, and that’s fine, Cox says, but the more you contribute, the more you’ll get out of it.

Share. Your experiences might be meaningful to someone else, and you’ll find that helping others helps you, too.