Does Group Therapy Actually work?

Does Group Therapy Actually Work?  This is a broad question, and is similar to asking if medicines actually work!  Of course, the answer to this and many questions like it is… ‘It depends…’  Read on to find out more.

group therapy
Group Therapy

Whether Group Therapy could be effective for you largely depends on the problem you’re seeking Psychological Therapy for.

Other important areas to also consider are the type of Group, the type of Therapy that’s being offered in the group, the type of leadership, on the other members of the group too.  Mostly however, it depends on YOU – what you want, what your problem is and how you would like it to be treated.

What Types Of Therapy Groups Exist?

Fundamentally there are three types of ‘group therapy’, and it’s a good idea to understand how each one is different in order to decide if Group Therapy will actually work for you.

1) Support Groups:

One type of Group is less focused upon therapy, but is more designed to give you the opportunity to meet with other people in similar positions.  Support Groups are usually not facilitated by someone with specialist training in Psychology or Therapy, but usually by someone that has experienced the problem for themselves and wants to help others.

Because of this, we wouldn’t usually call these types of groups ‘group therapy’ as such, but they can often have a therapeutic quality to them.  This is usually because other people in the group are usually able to empathise with the problems you are facing, and vice versa.  Research does show that our distress can significantly reduce just by having people listen, understand and validate the difficulties we are going through – And who better to do this than someone who has faced them first-hand?

2) ‘Low-Intensity’ Self-Help Groups:

These are usually offered in the UK NHS Mental Health Services.  They are groups that are designed to give you Therapy information that you can use for yourself.  Like support groups they all give you the opportunity to meet with other people that are experiencing similar problems.  They are usually run by people called ‘Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners’, who have received basic mental health training in common problem areas, but aren’t qualified or trained to deliver Psychological Therapy.  For this reason we often wouldn’t classify Low Intensity Groups as a type of Group Therapy either.

This is important to remember, because sometimes particular local services don’t make this very clear to people.  It’s not usual for client to approach our clinic telling us that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), for example, doesn’t work for them – yet when we explore what treatment they have received in the past, it can often turn out to be a ‘Low Intensity’ self help Group, rather than full therapy.  The difference is a bit like trying to learn a foreign language from a book, compared to somebody from that country sitting down with you and individually showing you how to speak it and correcting you when needed.

3) Psychotherapy Groups:

These groups are facilitated by a qualified and experienced Therapist.  They are designed to provide Therapy information to participants, but also to work on the beliefs, thoughts, attitudes and coping strategies of clients in the group.  Often the Therapist will use the range of different ideas in the room to help with belief changes.  These are the first Group we’ve mentioned so far that we would actually class as a Therapy Group.

So, Can These Psychotherapy Groups Work?

Some people find each of these Groups to be beneficial for their troubles. Often groups will be for specific problems like obesity, depression, chronic pain, bereavement or anger management. The theory is that by participating in a Group with other people you learn that you are not alone, that others have faced similar problems and have useful coping strategies that you could try. This can give you hope and inspire you to use new approaches to overcome your difficulties. These Groups depend on the social support that enables members to feel valued, heard and understood. When this is skilfully handled it can be very helpful to share experiences. Regularly talking and listening to others from different backgrounds and with a different approach to their problems can help you put your own situation into perspective.

Is the therapy group right for me?

Other group members can be an asset, but the Group Leader needs to be experienced and well trained in order to get the best experiences for all the participants.  There also needs to be a good and thorough assessment process for most Groups in order to make sure that people are actually experiencing the problem that the Group is focused on treating.

It can be a problem for someone to find themselves in a group that doesn’t address their concerns – and this can also cause disruptions for other groups members if they can’t easily relate to that person’s experiences.  A good Group Therapist can help you understand the most effective methods for treating certain problems that have been scientifically tested to ensure that the Group is suitable for you.

Are There Any Drawbacks To Group Therapy?

There can be a number of drawbacks in having Group Therapy rather than Individual Therapy.  For example many people can find that discussing their lives in front of a group of strangers can be scary. nervous about group therapyHow do you know they won’t judge you and think you’re just a ‘wimp’ for not coping on your own? The leader needs to be sensitive to this and be able to keep everyone’s contribution compassionate and respectful. Otherwise, you run the risk of feeling worse than ever.

Some theories of Group Therapy believe that participants’ problems arise from previous dysfunctional family relationships and the group can serve as a substitute family with an authority figure, where new ways of relating can be learned.  A Psychoanalytic Group will focus on understanding the conflict between conscious and unconscious drives to bring them into awareness and reduce their potential to turn up as emotional disturbance.  This can involve the leader inferring unconscious conflicts from your dreams or some of the unguarded things you might say or do. Does this appeal to you, or is it a completely no-go area for you?  Often research into the effectiveness of such group approaches is ‘patchy’ at best compared with more modern and highly researched Psychological Therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) .

Groups can be open or closed and this is another challenge. Open groups (where new people join all the time), have the advantage of frequently refreshing the participants’ contributions. They can offer a wider range of experience for each person to draw on and often have no predetermined length so you can keep attending as long as you like. Closed groups start with a fixed number of people who remain constant throughout the length of the treatment (usually 10-12 sessions). Both have pros and cons. Do you feel like constantly adjusting to new members will be upset the trust in the relationships you’ve already formed, or that having the discussion repeatedly going over material you’ve heard many times before could be frustrating? On the other hand, in a closed group, do you really think you’ve had enough opportunity to explore all the aspects of your problem that you need? What if you think some group members aren’t that helpful but you’re ‘stuck’ with them?

Overall, research shows that group treatment in it’s many forms benefits about 85% of participants on the whole, but if you read the studies carefully, you will notice that most people have individual sessions as well in some form or another.  This research also depends on people participating in the right group for them, and that the other people will be in the right place too.  Often in reality, many Therapy services in the NHS (who often run Therapy Groups more than private services) can struggle to ensure that these conditions are met – and so it’s not unusual to see much lower treatment outcomes than the 85% success-rate above.  In general, between a 30-50% success rate would be considered average.

What’s The Conclusion To The Question of ‘Does Group Therapy Actually Work?’

So there we have it. It looks like the answer to the question, ’Does Group Therapy actually work?’ is yes, as long as there is individual Talking Therapy too and that you’re offered the right type group – and actually feel comfortable with participating fully in it.

Most people agree that Talking Therapy is good for you and that a well-qualified therapist will enable you to explore your problem in ways that can lead to improvements in your quality of life.  Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has an excellent evidence base for Group Based Therapies, and depends on looking at the thoughts and beliefs you have about your difficulties. This can take a while to fathom out and can sometimes be tough to do in a group where each individual can have a unique set of thoughts that won’t necessarily be relevant to you.

Personal CBT can help you to focus rapidly on your own belief systems and you won’t have to disclose them to anyone else apart from your Therapist. By taking your thoughts and beliefs as the starting point, CBT can help you to understand why some aspects of your life are problematic, why your mood is often depressed (for example), or why your anxiety levels might be so high you can’t achieve your tasks. Your therapist can tailor your progress to your specific needs and give you the chance to learn and understand how to apply the techniques to help yourself in the long run.


Want to find out more? Why not talk to one of the Therapists in our Clinic to see if we can offer a useful treatment to you?