Dr. Steiner's Tools for Change

Articles & Publications

  1. Toolkit for Families Living with Chronic Medical Illness
  2. ❧ Healing Power of Groups
  3. Why Nickname your Illness?
  4. Coping with Trauma

The Healing Power of Groups

IS GROUP FOR YOU?

Groups, from self-help groups to traditional psychotherapy groups have been shown to be the ideal antidote for isolation.

THE BENEFITS OF GROUP

  • Antidote for Isolation
  • Reassuring to know others have smiliar problems
  • Discover the gift of having something to offer others
  • Find new ways of thinking about your problems
  • Learn from others, discover different ways of coping
  • Learn ways to deal with limitations and still find joy
  • Discover hope

HOW EFFECTIVE ARE GROUPS?

According to research conducted by Consumer Reports, group therapy benefits people as much as individual therapy. For some, participating in a group is even more helpful than individual therapy. At times the combination of both individual and group therapy is the best way to go.

Other research has shown that members of groups that deal with breast cancer and other serious medical illnesses see a big improvement in their quality of life. Often these groups help people live longer, more satisfying, healthier lives.

This article is written to help you understand the different types of group to choose from. Once you understand the differences between the different types of groups available you can decide whether you would be more comfortable with a group led by a professional or a self-help group that is run by non-professionals who are dealing with the same problems and life challenges. The next section talks more about the different kinds of groups and how to find a group that fits your needs.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GROUP THERAPY,
SUPPORT GROUPS, AND SELF-HELP GROUPS?

About Self-Help Groups
Membership is usually limited to one common illness or problem. Leaders are usually are group members who have the same problem as other group members. Self-help groups usually follow a structured format that discourages what is referred to as "cross-talk," or deep interactive discussions between groups members during the meetings. These groups may ask for donations, but usually do not charge. Although a commitment to coming is encouraged, members are welcome even if they do not come regularly. Members are encouraged to be in contact with each other between the group meetings.

About PsychoEducational Groups
Many of these groups are set up like classes with time for discussion about a common illness, concern or problem. The leaders may be people who have had the problem being focused on, or professionals trained to lead groups. In addition to offering support, the goal is to learn different ways of coping with problems and developing new skills. Many of these groups charge fees, ask that members make a commitment to attend for at least 4 sessions, and encourage members to support each other outside of the group.

About Supportive Expressive Groups
Membership is usually limited to one common illness or problem, leaders are most often professionals who charge a fee, as in a class. Cancer groups are a good example of this kind of group. This type of group uses a combination of education, support, discussion and encourages group members to socialize with each other if they want to.

About Support Groups
Most support groups are led by professionals. They may be long or short term, and the membership may or may not have been "screened."Membership is usually limited to one common problem, such as caregiver support groups. Most of these groups charge fees and ask that members make a commitment of at least 4 sessions.

About Psychotherapy Groups
Therapy groups provide a safe place to practice new ways of coping with old behaviors and reactions that get in the way of having the kind of relationships you want. Members are encouraged to talk about their most intimate feelings and to let the group know how they are feeling during the group. This is often an intense, powerful experience that helps members learn more about their emotions and how they come across to others. Being in this kind of group can be intense and is best seen as an investment in long term change. In short, long-term psychotherapy groups offer a consistent, safe place to speak the unspeakable, to help you understand what is getting in the way of having more meaningful relationships and feel better about yourself.

About the Hybrids
The past ten years has seen many new kinds of groups that combine different features of the groups described above. Most groups have a different style, some groups ask for a commitment to a certain number of weeks or months and others welcome people on a "drop-in basis."

WHAT DO THESE GROUPS HAVE IN COMMON?

Each of these types of groups can help members:

  • Become more active participants in their emotional and physical health care. In groups organized around medical concerns, members learn more about managing their illness and get better at taking good care of themselves
  • Are antidotes for isolation
  • Increase members' sense of belonging, and of having something of value to offer others
  • Help members learn new coping tools
  • Offer a place to hear how others cope with similar problems, which helps members find healthier more effective ways to deal with their own problems.

This next section explains more about the different kinds of groups

SHORT-TERM GROUPS

Generally, groups that meet for less than 8 sessions are thought of as short-term. Members are usually asked to make a commitment to come to each group meeting. Some groups give members the choice to continue in the group, while others may start over every few months. Some of these groups are particularly helpful when you are in crisis. Also, short-term groups can give you an idea of what it is like to be in a therapy group, give you support during a crisis and help you on your way.

DROP-IN GROUPS

This type of group is set up so that members don't need to make a commitment to coming to the group. Members are welcome to come to group whenever they want. The downside to this kind of group is that you can lose the intimacy, feelings of safety and comfort that comes when you meet with the same people every week.

There are times when a drop- group or short-term group is the best choice, especially if you are in crisis. Another advantage of these groups is that people can come when they want support and know that the support is available when they want to get help.

LONG-TERM GROUPS

Many psychotherapy groups have no set ending date. These groups are called long term because they may meet every week for several or more years. Members leave this kind of group when they have made the interpersonal changes they wanted to learn in group, have accomplished the goals they set out in the beginning of the group.

WHAT KIND OF GROUP IS BEST FOR ME?

Once you understand the differences between the different types of group available you probably will be able to answer that question for yourself. For example, would you be more comfortable in a group that is led by a trained professional? Or would you prefer that the leader be someone who has "been there," knows what it's like to deal with your problem personally and doesn't charge for the sessions? If you like the idea of meeting with the same people and continuing to talk about deep personal issues that came up in the last meeting you may be happier in a therapy group. If, however, you would prefer to listen to a presentation and then be part of a short discussion, you probably will be more comfortable in a short-term psychoeducational group.

FINDING A GROUP IN YOUR AREA

If you don't know about any groups in your community, the best way to find the kind of group you would like to join, is old-fashioned "word of mouth." If you don't know anyone who is in a group, or who you feel comfortable asking for suggestions, consider asking your doctor, minister, priest or rabbi for recommendations. A list of resources is listed at the bottom of this page.

QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT THE GROUP YOU ARE CONSIDERING JOINING

Once you find a list of groups to consider you will probably be more comfortable knowing more about the group before you either meet with the leader or go to a meeting. With 12-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous and CoDa, self-help groups for codependency, you may find it easier to go to the first meeting with a friend or call ahead and talk to someone in the program. If you are looking for a professionally led group you might want to ask some questions about what the group members can expect to get from being in the group, whether there is a time commitment, and whether the leader encourages socializing outside of the group. Asking these kinds of questions will help you figure out whether this might be a good group for you. Many people find that it helps if they write out a list of questions and then call the leader to ask your questions and get more details. Remember, there are no dumb questions. You deserve to know what the group offers and get help finding the right group for you.

Now that you know about the different types of group, you can think about what type of group might work best for you. Most people know whether they would feel more comfortable having a paid professional lead a group, or prefer to have the group led by people who are in the same situation. Some people find they want a group that doesn't require a commitment, so they choose a self-help group, a short-term or drop-in group. The likelihood is that you can figure out what kind of group support will be most helpful to you.

A WORD ABOUT SCREENING AND FOLLOW UP FOR POTENTIAL GROUP MEMBERS

Most participants in groups that are not led by professionals are not screened. This means that the leader has not met or talked with members before they attend meetings. It can also mean that there is no follow up in crisis.

Structured self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, encourage members to have a sponsor who helps the sponsee learn about the program and deal with the challenges of their addiction. If the group is not a traditional twelve-step program, ask if there is a charge for the screening or preparation session. Some therapists offer these sessions free while others charge

WHAT IF I'M UNCOMFORTABLE DISCUSSING MY PROBLEMS IN FRONT OF OTHERS?

Many people who are uncomfortable with the idea of talking to more than one person find that they do better starting out with a group that doesn't require active participation such as a psychoeducational group, or a self-help group.

What really matters is that you do what feels comfortable to you, and go at a pace that allows you to feel good about attending and sharing with others.

HOW DOES GROUP PSYCHOTHERAPY WORK?

Most participants in groups that are not led by professionals are not screened. This means that the leader has not met or talked with members before they attend meetings. It can also mean that there is no follow up in crisis. 

Structured self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, encourage members to have a sponsor who helps the sponsee learn about the program and deal with the challenges of their addiction. If the group is not a traditional twelve-step program, ask if there is a charge for the screening or preparation session. Some therapists offer these sessions free while others charge.

A SHORT HISTORY OF GROUP WORK

Many people who are uncomfortable with the idea of talking to more than one person find that they do better starting out with a group that doesn't require active participation such as a psychoeducational group, or a self-help group.

What really matters is that you do what feels comfortable to you, and go at a pace that allows you to feel good about attending and sharing with others.

HOW CAN I FIND A GROUP IN MY AREA?

National Mental Health Consumers Self Help Clearinghouse
Self Help Group Referrals (800) 553 4539 or www.mhselfhelp.org

Alcoholics Anonymous (800) 923 8722 or www.alcoholics-anonymous.org

The American Group Psychotherapy Association website includes a Directory of their members: www.AGPA.org

To see more group resources, please check out this page.


This article is based on sections of Starting and Sustaining Groups that Thrive: Workbook and Planning Guide . Please do not use this material without the author's written consent.


Top | Home | Site Map | Mailing List | Contact

© Ann Steiner, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Reproduction without the author's written consent is prohibited.

Last Updated: April 6, 2016