The Healing Power of Groups
By Dr. Ann Steiner, Ph.D., MFT, CGP, Lafayette, California
IS GROUP FOR YOU?
Giving or receiving help in groups - which can vary from self-help to traditional psychotherapy groups - has been shown to be the ideal antidote for isolation.
THE BENEFITS OF GROUPS:
- Find understanding and compassion from members with similar problems
- Discover the gift of realizing that you have something valuable to share with others
- Find new ways of thinking about your difficulties
- Learn from others, discover new coping skills
- Realize you can work with limitations and still find joy
- Reduce isolation
- Discover hope
Relationships Determine the Quality of Life
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE GROUPS?
Group therapy benefits people as much as individual therapy does according to research conducted by Consumer Reports. For some people, 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 concerned with breast cancer or other serious medical illnesses see a big improvement in their quality of life. These groups can help people live longer, more satisfying, healthier lives.
THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE
This article describes the types of groups one can choose from. Once you understand the differences, 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 similar problems and life challenges.
Read on to learn about groups and what might fit your needs.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES AMONG GROUP THERAPY, SUPPORT GROUPS AND SELF-HELP GROUPS?
Membership is usually limited to one common illness or problem. Often, leaders are group participants who share the group's issues. Self-help groups usually follow a structure with members talking in turn. The format discourages cross-talk, that is, directly answering or deep interactive discussions between members during meetings. These groups may ask for donations, but usually do not charge. Although a commitment to regular attendance is encouraged, participants are usually welcome to come without making an ongoing commitment. Members are encouraged to be in contact with each other outside the group meetings.
Many of these groups are structured like classes with time for discussion about a common illness, concern, or problem. The leaders may have (had) the problem, or may be trained group leaders. In addition to offering support, the goal is to learn ways of coping with problems and to develop new skills. These groups may charge fees, ask that members commit to attend at least 4 sessions, are often time-limited, and encourage members to support each other outside of the group.
Supportive Expressive Groups
Membership is usually limited to one common illness or problem such as cancer. Leaders are most often professionals and a fee is charged. Some of these group are short-term and others have no set ending date. This group approach uses a combination of education, support, and discussion. Members may or may not have been screened, and participants are often encouraged to socialize with each other if they wish to.
Most support groups are led by professionals and focus on one common problem, such as care giving. The duration may be long or short term, and the membership may or may not have been screened. Most of these groups charge fees and ask that members make a commitment to at least 4 sessions.
Therapy groups provide a safe place to practice new ways of coping with old behaviors, and with reactions that get in the way of having better relationships. During group sessions members are encouraged to talk about their most intimate thoughts and to let the group know how they feel. This is often a powerful experience that helps members learn more about their emotions and how the group members experience their communication and non-verbal behavior. These groups can be intense and are an investment in change. A long-term psychotherapy group offers a consistent, comfortable place to speak up, to help understand what is getting in the way of having more meaningful relationships, and to feel better about yourself.
The past ten years have seen many new kinds of groups that combine features of the meetings described above. Most groups have a particular approach, some 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 to better manage their illness and get better at taking good care of themselves
- reduce isolation
- increase their sense of belonging, and of having value to others
- learn new coping tools
- hear how others deal with similar problems, and discover healthier, more effective, ways to cope
WHAT ARE THE TIME COMMITMENTS FOR GROUPS?
Groups that meet for less than 8 sessions are generally thought of as short-term. Members are may be asked to make a commitment to come to each meeting. Some groups may continue beyond the set time period, while others may restart every few months. Short-term groups can be particularly helpful to the individual in crisis. Short-term groups can show what it is like to be in a therapy group, and can give immediate support and help the person get past the crisis.
In these groups, members don't need to make a commitment to attending. Participants are welcome regardless. The downside is the possible loss of intimacy, feelings of safety and the comfort that comes from meeting regularly with the same people.
There are times when a drop-in or short-term group is the best choice, especially when in crisis. Participants may attend when they need support and know that help is available.
Many psychotherapy groups have no set end date. 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 achieve, or have accomplished the goals they set out when beginning with the group.
WHAT KIND OF GROUP IS BEST FOR ME?
Once the differences are clear among the types of groups available, you will likely be able to answer this question yourself. Would you be more comfortable in a group led by a trained professional? Would you prefer that the leader be someone who has "been there," knows what it's like to deal with your problem and doesn't charge? If you like the idea of meeting with the same people and continuing to talk about deep personal issues that arose in a previous meeting, you may be happier in a therapy group. If you would be more comfortable listening to a presentation then participating in a short discussion, you might prefer a short-term psycho-educational group or class.
FINDING A GROUP IN YOUR AREA:
If you're not aware of groups in your community, the best way to find one is old-fashioned word of mouth. If you don't know anyone in a group, or who you feel comfortable asking for suggestions, consider asking your doctor, minister, priest or rabbi. This website helps find therapy groups in your area. Additional resources are listed at the end of this article.
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 with someone in the program.
If you are looking for a professionally-led group, you might want to ask some questions about what participants can expect to achieve in the group, whether there is a time commitment, and whether the leader encourages socializing outside of the group.
Many people find that it helps to write out a list of questions, then to call the leader to get more detail. Remember, there are no dumb questions. You deserve to know what the group offers, how much experience the leader has in running groups, and to get help finding the right group for you.
Now that you know about different types of groups, you can think about what might work best for you. Most people know whether they would feel more comfortable having a paid professional lead a group, or prefer a leader in the same situation. Some people find they want a group that doesn't require a commitment, so they choose a self-help, short-term or drop-in group. You can likely figure out what kind of 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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ann Steiner, Ph.D., MFT, Certified Group Psychotherapist,
is an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco, and faculty member, The Psychotherapy Institute's Group Therapy Training Program. She is a Fellow of the American Group Psychotherapy Society, was a founding member of the National Registry of Group Psychotherapists, and was president of the Northern California Group Psychotherapy Society. Additionally, she is a highly respected, practicing psychotherapist, noted national and international speaker, and author.
Dr. Steiner has been in private practice for over 26 years where she does individual, couples, and group therapy with adults. She is a pioneer in working with individuals derailed by chronic physical illness and maintains a website with free articles and resources and recommended reading. The site, www.DrSteiner.com
also includes a free, downloadable Medical Information Form to help you keep track of your medications and emergency contact information.
© Copyright 2001- 2009 Ann Steiner, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved
Please do not reproduce this material for distribution or publication without the author's written consent.
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