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What Is Group Counseling?

Here's what to expect from therapy groups, and their potential benefits.

Key points

  • Group counseling can be a helpful form of therapy, either on its own or as a complement to one-on-one therapy.
  • There are different types of groups that may focus on a certain issue or use a specific therapeutic approach.
  • The benefits of group counseling range from the emotional to the practical to the financial.

Group counseling is a form of psychotherapy in which two to 15 participants meet face-to-face to work through their problems and concerns under the guidance of one or two mental health professionals. Such groups can provide support and perspective—and often suggestions and models for change—to individuals struggling on their own. Group counseling can be helpful both as a sole form of therapy and when used as a supplement to individual therapy. Most groups meet regularly, once or twice weekly, in sessions that last from one to two hours.

Groups That Focus on a Specific Disorder or Concern

Some groups are dedicated to a specific problem, such as depression, anger management, or substance abuse, while others more broadly seek to expand participants’ social skills. Some groups have open sessions, which anyone can attend at any time. Others are closed; they have a fixed set of participants, and new members are accepted only when an individual concludes a course of therapy or leaves the group.

Groups That Utilize a Specific Type of Therapy

Not only may groups address a specific problem (anxiety, obesity, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, shyness, sexual abuse), but they may also utilize a specific therapeutic approach. For example, some groups employ a cognitive-behavioral framework, adapted from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), with the goal of imparting techniques for improving cognition—especially identifying and overcoming negative thought patterns that keep people stuck in nonproductive behavioral cycles.

Other groups may be structured around an interpersonal framework, drawing on the interactions among group members as a pattern for the resolution of individuals’ problems. Especially for those recovering from substance use, counseling groups may be organized around skills development—ways to resist urges, solve problems, and build confidence in the ability to maintain behavioral change.

Psychoeducational Groups

Other groups may have a psychoeducation focus. These groups are typically led by an instructor and rely less on the interaction among group members and more on the information imparted by a leader, usually on a specific aspect of psychological functioning—say, overcoming phobias or recovery from addiction.

What Is the Difference Between Group Counseling, Group Therapy, and Support Groups?

In the U.S., the terms "group counseling" and "group therapy" are often used interchangeably. However, in the U.K. and other parts of the world, there are slight differences between the two types of groups. Group counseling is intended to deal with short-term problems, while group therapy addresses long-term behavioral concerns and psychological disorders.

Unlike group counseling and group therapy, support groups are typically led not by a mental health professional but by peers and are sometimes referred to as peer-counseling groups. They tend to be larger, open groups, generally focused on the maintenance of positive behavior change, and often have no fixed end-point.

Whereas group counseling is oriented to give clients tools to change thoughts, feelings, and behavior that are not serving them well, support groups are more oriented to helping people cope with difficult ongoing circumstances (such as parenting a developmentally disabled child or managing fertility problems).

What Are the Benefits of Group Counseling?

1. Emotional support

Initial hesitation to discuss personal problems and deep concerns with a room full of strangers is understandable, but participants typically find the group experience extremely rewarding. Having problems is isolating, and individuals often feel that they are the only person struggling; participating in a group relieves the burden of isolation and, often, shame and frees up energy.

2. Motivation and hope

Group members can act as a sounding board and give helpful advice based on firsthand knowledge of the problem and what does and doesn’t work. In group counseling, participants make a commitment not only to themselves but to everyone in the group. They can hold each other accountable for making real progress on the changes they wish to see in their lives. Plus, witnessing group members making therapeutic progress can instill hope that change is possible.

3. Social skills

Group counseling offers a supportive environment for developing and practicing social skills. The group leader(s) can observe firsthand any unhelpful habits that may be causing problems in the participants’ real-life relationships and offer practical, immediate suggestions. Through group counseling exercises, participants can experiment with new behaviors and different ways of communicating.

4. Professional guidance

Most group counseling sessions are led by one or more mental healthcare professionals with expertise in common interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT). Group leaders will have experience helping clients with similar issues and will have a set of proven tips for participants to begin trying out in exercises during their sessions. Participants will end group counseling with some practical tools that they can carry out into the real world to improve their own lives and relationships.

5. Affordability

Even with insurance, individual therapy sessions can run anywhere from $100 or $200 each up to $400. Group counseling is typically less expensive, with most sessions costing anywhere from $20 to $80 each. Depending on where they are being offered and what type of intervention is being used, some group counseling may even be free or very low-cost.

How to Get Involved

Many psychotherapists offer group therapy, often as an adjunct to individual therapy. If a person is already engaging in individual therapy, their therapist may recommend group counseling, either instead of or as a complement to their current treatment. Clients can also discuss the possibility of group counseling with their therapist and ask for recommendations for a group.

For those who are not currently in therapy, group counseling is often offered by hospitals and mental health clinics, community centers, and universities. There are also online options for group counseling. For instance, Psychology Today’s Therapy Directory includes the ability to search for support groups based on zip code.

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