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How Effective is Group Therapy?

Posted on November 10, 2021

How Effective is Group Therapy?

One of the tools that is used to try and help people who are affected by substance misuse is group therapy. The words “group therapy” can bring up a lot of questions about what exactly this entails, how it works, and what is expected of the participants. For some people, it might also bring up feelings of fear.

In this article we aim to help answer some of the questions that often arise and help diminish any worries or nervousness about what group therapy consists of.

What is group therapy?

As the name might suggest, group therapy involves one, or possibly two, therapists working with several people (often quite a small number) at the same time.

Group therapy has been around for a very long time and is becoming more popular as evidence grows regarding its effectiveness in treating many different conditions.

This form of therapy is offered by a wide range of services, e.g., hospitals, mental health clinics, rehabilitation centres and private therapy centres.

There are different types of group therapy that are used depending on the conditions that are being treated. Some examples include

  • Psychoeducational groups which focus on educating participants regarding particular aspects of disorders and coping methods that can be practised.
  • Support groups can be more general in terms of what topics are discussed by participants and can provide benefits not just for those who are suffering from a particular disorder but also those close to them who have also been affected.

Among the most common form of therapy used in the treatment of substance misuse is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and this is often carried out very effectively within group therapy settings. CBT aims to look at specific thought patterns and behaviours that may be causing harm to the individual and support change to establish more positive patterns.

How does group therapy work?

Like with individual therapy, in a group therapy session there will always be a trained therapist (or sometimes two) present throughout the session. Their role, again like individual therapy, is to provide input when it is therapeutically beneficial.

Group therapy is not the same as talking things over with friends. Group therapy provides a forum in which the participants are individually, and according to their own needs, guided to look at their struggles within the confines of a safe, confidential and therapeutically monitored setting.

It is of utmost importance that everyone in the group knows and feels that everything they say will be treated with respect and kept strictly and professionally confidential by all the other participants.

What are the benefits of group therapy?

There are many benefits to group therapy, and it would be difficult to list them all here. Often the first thing participants mention is that they experience a sense of no longer being alone with their issues. Some of the other benefits include:

  • being able to see other members of the group succeed and therefore gaining more hope in relation to your own recovery;
  • being helped to see things from different perspectives as other people’s stories are heard;
  • experiencing compassion and safety from the group.

Some people have the belief that group therapy cannot be as beneficial as individual therapy as in many settings it is not only cheaper but much more readily accessible, with shorter waiting times. Lower costs and easier access are indeed benefits of being able to treat several people at once, but the research shows that group therapy is just as effective as individual therapy for several conditions.

Can group therapy help with addiction?

Evidence shows that group therapy can be successfully used in the treatment of such conditions as depression, obesity, anxiety and many more[1]. It is also effective in the treatment of substance use disorder[2].

Substance use disorder can often involve a great deal of social isolation along with many negative and even destructive thought patterns which can keep the sufferer trapped in a cycle. Group therapy has been found to be particularly effective in offering ways to form pathways out of the cycle and to encourage the development of new patterns of thought and behaviour.

Is group therapy the same as going to AA?

The different Twelve Step groups that deal with substance use disorders place a lot of emphasis on mutual support and encouragement. This is the main similarity between them and group therapy.

What is fundamentally different about group therapy is that it is professionally directed according to evidence-based methods in order to bring about therapeutic healing. Many people have been helped by AA and other Twelve Step programmes, but they are very different from group therapy.

What will I have to do in group therapy?

For some people, the thing that concerns them most about group therapy is a worry about what will be expected of them. The key response to this worry is the fact that nothing is expected because, as with all forms of therapy, the person in charge is you.

Some practical issues might include:

  • group sizes can differ, with a typical number being around 8-10 people though each group is different;
  • some groups always contain the same people, whilst other groups might have people finishing or new people joining each week;
  • participants would normally be seated in such a way so that everyone can see each other – seating would not be in rows as it might be in a class;
  • if the session is over an hour-long there would most likely be a break in the middle;
  • it will be explained to you if there are any “rules” like waiting until the break if you need to use the bathroom (within reason) in order not to interrupt or distract anyone.

It is often the practice that, when you start attending a therapy group, the therapist would introduce you in some way to the rest of the group at the start of the session.

Will group therapy help me?

No form of therapy is absolutely guaranteed. However, like other forms of therapy, group therapy will be effective to the degree that the participants engage with it. This does not mean that everyone has to be speaking in every session, or that you are expected to give the “right answers”.

Participation simply requires honesty. Being honest is simple but it is often not easy. Some things can feel too difficult to think about let alone talk about.

Many of us have not experienced a sense of group safety and trust. Many more of us have never been helped by a professionally trained therapist. Try to trust in this process which has been gone through by many people who had the same concerns and struggles as you do, and whose lives have been enormously improved as a result.


[1] American Psychological Association: April 2019

[2] Centre for Substance Abuse Treatment – Group Therapy: 2005


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