support group session

Group Therapy vs. Support Group: What’s Right for You?

In both group therapy and support groups, people in similar situations get together and work toward improving their mental health. So, what’s the difference? And how can someone determine which type of group best fits their needs? To find out, we chatted with licensed therapist Aimee Smrz, Ph.D.

Dr. Smrz works in our offices in Massachusetts and helps patients cope with a wide variety of issues, including anxiety, chronic pain, depression, childhood trauma, and relationship problems. After earning her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Adelphi University, Dr. Smrz completed a post-doctoral fellowship with Harvard Medical School and Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. She then continued her work at Harvard Vanguard until transitioning to PCA/CFPS recently.

Below are the questions we posed to Dr. Smrz, followed by her insightful answers.

What is Group Therapy?

Group therapy is a form of psychological treatment where a group of patients meets to work on their issues with the help and supervision of one or more therapists. The interactions between the group members are part of the treatment, with multiple sources of feedback and ideas providing the chance to learn to connect with others in new ways and change how they deal with their problems.

There are a lot of different types of therapeutic groups, largely determined by the purpose of the group and how it is organized. Groups can be focused on a particular problem that the group members share, like anxiety, or they can have members facing a wider variety of problems. Group discussions can be structured and focused on learning and practicing new skills, or they can be more free-flowing and process-oriented. Groups may be time-limited, with a certain number of pre-planned sessions, or they can be ongoing. Membership can be open, where someone might join at any time, or it might be closed where members can only join at particular times.

What Do Sessions Look Like?

Depending on what type of group therapy is being chosen, sessions can vary. Generally, a session will involve roughly 4-12 patients and one or more therapists who act to lead and facilitate the work of the group. Groups are generally weekly and can last anywhere between 1-2 hours. Regular attendance is expected.

Therapists might be very active in the group, like in skills training where there is a specific topic that is taught and practiced. Therapists also can be comparatively silent, only occasionally directing or intervening in the conversation between members to keep the group moving in a productive and therapeutic manner. Most groups are mostly focused on talk, but some groups may include activities such as art projects, music, or even exercise. Members are expected to participate with at least some level of sharing.

How Are Support Groups Different?

While both support groups and group therapy offer support, the goal of group therapy is to help members change, while the goal of support groups is to help members cope.

Support groups tend to have a particular theme, such as parents with sick children, and all who attend have some connection to that theme. They tend to be much less structured than therapeutic groups. At times there may be particular presentations about a related topic, but most often the group discussion is focused on supporting members with their current struggles.

Personal sharing is optional. Support groups can be very large and are often open-ended, with members coming and going, attending only when they feel the need. Other support groups, especially now in the time of COVID-19 restrictions, happen online. While support groups often have leaders or organizers, they tend not to have clinical training and act as facilitators rather than someone who might intervene or make interpretations.

Are There Benefits to Each? If so, What Are They?

Group therapy can be a very effective treatment for a wide variety of issues, all of which need a clinician’s expertise. By providing a safe space for social practicing, groups help improve social skills, increase self-awareness, promote learning by watching others’ success, promote self-esteem as mastery occurs, and improve social connections.

Skills-based groups can provide needed general training about a topic that can then leave an individual therapist more time to tailor treatment to the needs of a specific patient.

Support groups are highly effective at giving people “in the same boat” a support network. The groups can help people feel less alone with their problem and can also provide a lot of practical problem-solving advice that might help a group member manage their situation more effectively.

Who Can Benefit from Group Therapy?

Many people with a wide variety of problems can benefit from group therapy, depending on the type and focus of the group and whether it is “stand-alone” group therapy or a combination of group and individual therapy.

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Proper screening is key to determine whether someone could benefit from group therapy in general or from a specific group. Prospective group members should expect to connect with the group leader in some fashion to discuss their histories, core issues, and group goals, as well as the group format, rules, and expectations. A leader might then accept that person into the group or might offer other options. A patient might decide the group is for them, or might opt for a different form of treatment.

Are There Certain Kinds of Disorders That Are Well-Treated with Group Therapy?

At this point, there are groups for practically every major type of psychological disorder.

Group therapy treatment is available for:

  • Addictions
  • Anger management
  • Autistic spectrum disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Complicated grief
  • Depression and other mood disorders
  • Divorce
  • Domestic violence
  • Eating issues
  • Gender issues
  • Insomnia
  • Parenting
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Sexual functioning issues
  • Somatic symptom disorders
  • Trauma-related disorders

Not all groups may be available in all areas, but with the growing availability of telehealth, group options for less common disorders may be within reach soon.