Exploring the Benefits of Group Therapy

I have always had a fondness for group therapy. One of my first training experiences in grad school was running an anger management group for adults, and ever since then I’ve been hooked. I’ve been fortunate enough to lead or be a part of several different types of groups during my career and every time I felt like it was a personally enriching experience and more importantly was truly valuable to the group members involved.

Group therapy has several advantages over individual therapy, including:

  • The cost for group therapy is considerably lower than individual therapy
  • Quality care can be provided to more people, simultaneously, in a group therapy environment
  • Group therapy offers the opportunity to learn from others
  • Group therapy allows participants to practice taking social and communication risks in a safe environment
  • Peer contact during group therapy can normalize struggles and instill a sense of perspective
  • Peers provide support and encouragement to each other during group therapy

For the last several years I have been running a group therapy program at Pine Rest, called the Healthy Living Group. During this time I have had the privilege to be a part of the healing process for many individuals who were in various stages of recovery from depressive and anxiety illnesses. These experiences have really honed in for me what I find to be so amazing about group therapy. What I have witnessed during the sessions are people from very different walks of life coming together to provide support, encouragement and – most importantly – companionship.

Providing Support and Community for People Facing Stigma

Although we have come a long way in reducing mental illness stigma, we have by no means arrived at a world free from judgment and prejudice. Because of this, many people who do struggle with their mental health often feel isolated, alone and less than whole.

Unlike diseases and medical conditions affecting the physical body, such as leukemia, Down syndrome, blindness or breast cancer, mental illness often carries with it a presumption of guilt. Many in our communities still assume there is something inherently defective about a person with depression, social phobia, bipolar, etc. which simultaneously casts blame, alienates people and reinforces shame. For individuals who find themselves in such communities, the effect of this can be profound and has the power to transform a moderate and acute episode of mental health instability into something much more devastating and long lasting.

Well-respected author and medical doctor, Dean Ornish, makes a powerful claim for the value of love and intimacy:

“I am not aware of any other factor in medicine – not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery – that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes. Love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well, what causes sadness and what brings happiness, what makes us suffer, and what leads to healing.”

For individuals struggling with mental health problems, love and intimacy are in high demand, but all too often in short supply. It is into this gap that I have seen group therapy step in to fill time and time again.

Group therapy sessions become a safe haven from the assumptions, questions, fears and projections of friends and family. Group therapy is a place where the struggling individual can come to feel understood, to be open and honest about what is really going on in their world, and to be accepted as they are. It’s not that the people who participate in group therapy programs are somehow better, less judgmental or are immune to stigmatizing. But in group therapy, a powerful sense of community overwhelms fear and shame while fostering connectedness and compassion.

Everyone who enters the room for a group therapy session is well acquainted with the suffering that comes from mental health conditions and knows that everyone else in the room shares that acquaintance. This degree of familiarity and common ground allows for a level of openness and vulnerability that many people rarely or never have the chance to experience in their outside lives.

Consider Group Therapy

When the time comes to make a decision about rehabilitative services for a mental health condition – whether for yourself, for a loved one or for a patient or client – consider the benefits of group therapy.

For mental health professionals and health care providers this might mean:

  • Referring a patient to a community support group
  • Bolstering a struggling patient’s care with a referral to a therapy group for additional care
  • Starting your own support group
  • Reading about group therapy
  • Going to a training on group therapy

For those looking for mental health care, this may mean:

  • Seeking out a community support group on your own
  • Talking to your therapist about adding group therapy to your care
  • Letting go of some of your fear and a lot of your isolation
  • Choosing instead to embrace a healing community of support

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