How Effective is Group Therapy?

Bringing together a small group of people and allowing them to talk about their experiences has been a part of mental health treatment for almost 100 years [1], but group therapy can be a daunting option to consider.

The idea of speaking about very intimate thoughts and feelings is a difficult thing for many who struggle with their mental health, but to do that in front of strangers can cause some to look at group therapy and scrutinise whether it would even be worth it.

In order to put yourself in such a vulnerable position, you may need the reassurance that the treatment is actually effective, and that opening up to those strangers would actually be worth it in the end.

Effectiveness – What does the research say?

Hundreds of studies have been conducted across the world to analyse whether group therapy is effective, and for the large majority, the answer is yes.

For example, a study conducted by the University of Sheffield concluded that group therapy is an ‘effective approach, across diverse conditions and settings’ for helping individuals combat mental health problems [2].

Similar results have been found when testing group therapy’s effectiveness against a variety of different conditions.

In the United States, Gary Burlingame, a professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University, analysed the results of 50 clinical trials and concluded group therapy to be an effective method for combating mental health disorders.

When comparing group therapy participants with those of individual therapy – where a therapist and participant interact on a one-to-one basis – he found equal improvement in the mental health of both groups.

Burlingame also says that group therapy can help just as much as one-to-one therapy, and in some cases more so when treating conditions such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder [3].

According to the NHS, group therapy can be a beneficial platform to practice Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This treatment has proven effective when tackling issues such as depression, phobias, and anxiety [4].

What are the benefits of group therapy?

Group therapy differs from one-to-one therapy in obvious ways, but the benefits may not be so clear. Here are a few of the ways that group therapy can be an effective treatment method for combating mental health conditions:

1. Being in a safe and supportive environment

Group therapy regularly places people together who have had similar experiences and share the same obstacles.

To speak and feel related to by others who are going through similar challenges can help participants feel heard. This can help eliminate feelings of loneliness, giving participants a much-need sense of belonging and support.

2. Seeing the benefits of treatment first-hand

Being within a group not only allows participants to see others in similar situations to themselves but also grants them a glimpse as to what the future might hold.

Different people within each group will be at different stages in their treatment, allowing others to see the positive results of group therapy further down the line.

This can help a participant feel hopeful for how the treatment could improve their own lives and motivate them to engage with activities in a way they may not have done if receiving one-to-one treatment.

3. Sharing knowledge and experiences

Struggling with mental health can leave people feeling lost as to how to cope with it all. Therapists within other treatments methods may offer techniques for dealing with certain obstacles, but it can be difficult to put techniques into action without seeing their effectiveness.

Group therapy, on the other hand, allows participants to learn and pick things up from one another.

Exchanging techniques for how to manage situations in everyday life, as well as talking about how much each one has worked or not worked, can be vital for someone trying to figure out what coping mechanisms are right for them.

4. Improving social and communication skills

Some mental health conditions can cause people to feel isolated. Depression and anxiety, for example, often make people uncomfortable in the presence of others, and push them to spend more and more time on their own.

Group therapy can help healthily challenge these symptoms of poor mental health by allowing participants to interact with others and not feel alienated by their struggle with mental health.

To talk to others and feel compassion for their experiences can help participants develop more complex social skills, and ultimately help them learn how to interact with others in a healthier way.

How does group therapy work?

The process of undergoing group therapy begins with a consultation. Over several meetings, a clinical professional will assess the specific difficulties and needs of the individual are.

If group therapy is determined to be beneficial, sessions will then begin. Small group discussions will be led by a therapist, and participants will be encouraged to listen and support one another as they share their experiences [5].

Activities within each session might include:

  • Icebreakers – games and conversation topics, designed to relax participants and help them get to know one another a bit better.
  • Trust building – little challenges that encourage participants to cooperate and develop respect for one another to achieve small goals.
  • Psychological exercises – these involve participants evaluating how they see or approach certain situations. The goal is to help challenge harmful perspectives and encourage healthier ones.

Each individual within the group offers their feelings, thoughts and experiences with the goal of developing a mutual understanding of how one other feel over the course of multiple sessions.

The intention is not to provide a quick solution to psychological problems, but to develop a sense of comfort and belonging for participants, within which they can better understand themselves and their conditions [6].

1. Common fears about group therapy

Group therapy can be a scary route to consider. Speaking about personal and sometimes distressing topics can turn many people away, but some fears regarding the treatment are often disproportional.

Here are a few of the biggest doubts people may have going into group therapy, and what the real thing is actually like:

2. Feeling embarrassed

Sharing things you have never said before can be scary, and the fear of sounding ridiculous or being mocked is something many imagine when they think about group therapy.

The reality is quite different. Everyone within the group will be there because they have seen or gone through similar things themselves, and so will find your experiences relatable.

The resistance to opening up will also lessen as the sessions progress. With each meeting, the mutual respect and understanding between participants will grow, until the fear of embarrassment is a distant memory.

3. Fear of judgement

Speaking to a group about your past might cause you to fear what others may think of your previous behaviour. What if they criticise you, or think badly of your character?

Again, the other members of the group have had similar experiences, and it is important to remember that a therapist will always be offering support and guidance on how to navigate challenging memories or thoughts.

Respect and understanding will be at the forefront of every discussion, and opening up about previous behaviour is a part of each participant’s experience.

4. Being made to say things you don’t want to

Group therapy is a process. Opening up and sharing aren’t about revealing everything about who you are and what has happened in your life.

Equally, it isn’t a platform for others to quiz you and for you to provide answers. What you contribute is for you to decide as you become more relaxed, and the therapist will always ensure that everything shared is within the range of comfort of each participant.

It’s important to remember that a therapy group will be full of individuals looking to improve their mental health. Everyone is there for the same reason, and all will likely share the same fears and doubts.

The most important thing to remember is that the purpose of group therapy is to help. Although daunting, it has been proven to be an effective method for easing the burden of mental health issues and improving the lives of its participants.