Group therapy offers an alternative to one-on-one sessions with a therapist.

Although many people can't imagine sharing their problems with a group, group therapy is a way for individuals to work on their problems in a protected and confidential atmosphere. Most groups have six to eight members and a professional therapist who leads the group. Some groups also have a co-leader.

"Group therapy provides an opportunity for a group of people to develop an intimate, social, interactive environment without having to commit to emotional ties outside of the group," explains Steve Sultanoff, PhD, a therapist based in Irvine, California.

Sultanoff says that a skilled group leader can help participants learn how they interact with people, based on how they interact in the group. "The assumption is that individuals respond in the therapy group in much the same manner as they respond in other groups (family, friends, work). This helps people learn how they relate to others and how they are experienced by others," he adds.

Is Group Therapy for You?

People who are dealing with interpersonal problems are often good candidates for group therapy. You may find group therapy helpful if you've experienced a traumatic situation or sudden illness. In both instances, group therapy is useful because members can take risks and share their common feelings in a non-judgmental setting.

If you're considering group therapy, make an appointment with a professional therapist to discuss your options. In some cases, individual or couples therapy may prove to be a better solution for your particular situation. The therapist should make a recommendation that's based on your best interests.

What Are the Benefits of Group Therapy?

Through a process of supportive confrontation, group members are coached in alternative ways to handle themselves and their feelings. Group therapy can help you:

  • Form goals
  • Increase self-awareness and self-esteem
  • Gain insight into the ways others perceive you
  • Discover effective patterns of relating to others
  • Develop more satisfying relationships
  • Receive support for sharing common problems
  • Learn how to apply new behaviors to situations outside the group

While there are many benefits to group therapy, it does differ significantly from one-on-one therapy. For example, group therapy is often time-limited, whereas individual treatment is more open-ended. Group members usually receive less individualized attention in group sessions, as opposed to individual therapy, which is completely focused on you.

What Happens in the Session?

"A capable therapist creates an atmosphere where confidentiality is respected and mutual support is encouraged. There is an expectation that the personal issues causing someone to seek therapy will inevitably be experienced 'live' in the group sessions," explains Sue Johnston, MS, a psychotherapist and cofounder of The Armstrong Group, a consulting firm based in Fairfax, Virginia.

Johnston provides an example of how group therapy can help two types of people, one who is often a victim of others and the second, who tends to be a bully.

"The 'victim' will usually play the same role within the group, reacting to the 'bully,' who may be there because of a past pattern of harshness in relationships," she says. "Because the therapist is there and the ground rules include a commitment from the members to look at their own behavior and feelings, the group will call a 'time out' to look at what is happening between the two people."

The two group members will be encouraged to understand how they feel, whether the role is familiar in their lives, and where and why that behavior developed, explains Johnston. From that point, change can be gradually implemented as the two parties become more aware of their behaviors.

Types of Groups

Each group session lasts approximately 90 minutes to two hours. Groups are held weekly or biweekly, for a specified period of time. There are many different types of groups. Some groups are specialized, whereas others deal with very broad issues. And groups can be highly structured or casual.

  • General therapy groups—most focus on self-understanding and improving your overall relationships with others. The therapist leading the group will often ask members to define goals they would like to achieve within the timeframe of the group therapy program. Most of these groups contain both men and women, but some are specifically intended for men or women only.
  • Specialized therapy groups—there are several therapy groups for people with specific needs. These include groups that deal with women's issues, sexual assault, stress management, men's issues, parenting, and divorce. Before joining any therapy group, talk to the therapist to make sure that it's a good fit for you.
  • Support groups—differ from therapy groups in several ways. In many support groups, facilitators are not required to have professional credentials, although some may have them. Support groups are intended to offer general support by having members offer support to each other, whereas therapy groups improve behavioral patterns and social interactions in all types of relationships.

How Long Does Group Therapy Last?

Although some groups are time-limited, running anywhere from eight to 12 weeks, "most groups are ongoing with new people entering and people 'graduating' throughout the group's lifespan," Johnston explains. She adds that it's not unusual for people to stay in a group for a year, while others attend for a few months and do not return.

When looking for a group, ask for specific information on how the group works. Can members leave and rejoin at a later time? Does the group run for a certain timeframe and then start a new cycle? Asking questions ahead of time will help you determine if a potential group will meet your needs.

Deciding when to leave a group is another issue. In most situations, therapists will require that you explain to members why you are leaving, so that participants don't feel abandoned or angry.

Paying for Group Therapy

Group therapy often costs less than individual sessions. It's important to discuss payment before you start a group. Some insurance providers cover group therapy, while others will pay only for individual sessions.

If money is an issue, ask the group therapist if a sliding-scale payment schedule is available. In this case, the cost of group therapy is reduced based on your annual income. Many community mental health centers offer such programs.

Finding a Qualified Group Therapist

Johnston explains that the minimum credential for a group therapist in private practice is a professional degree as a psychotherapist. A therapist with a master's degree in social work (MSW), a doctorate in psychology (PhD), or a master's in counseling (MA), are all examples of credentialed group therapists.

In addition, the therapist should be licensed by the state to work independently. However, unlicensed therapists are allowed to work under supervision in an agency setting, such as a rape crisis center. Graduate students are also allowed to work under supervision in some agencies.

Johnston adds that therapists should show as much interest in the person's strengths as in their problems. A participant should also have good rapport with the therapist and feel encouraged and respected. If a therapist doesn't listen with respect, criticizes you, or pushes you to stay in therapy for a long time, it's time to find another professional. Remember that you hired the therapist, and you can also terminate the relationship.

Keep an open mind by discussing any fears with the therapist prior to starting group therapy. This will make your group experience a positive one. At first, it may be unsettling to share your feelings with others, but group therapy can promote healthy change and provide you valuable insight into your life.