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Group therapy

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

A man smiling in a group therapy session.

Attending regular group therapy sessions is an effective treatment for people with a wide variety of disorders and conditions. Group structure makes treatment available for people who are on a waitlist for individualized therapy. It also provides a cost-effective option for people who can’t afford individual sessions. 

Most groups are for people struggling with similar conditions or disorders. As a result, participants experience solidarity with and comfort from others that can’t be duplicated in individual sessions. 

There are many theories, types, and structures for group therapy. Here’s a quick rundown. 

What Is Group Therapy?

The first group therapy session was in 1905 by Dr. Joseph Hersey Pratt. It was a class designed to teach tuberculosis patients how to manage their illness. 

Dr. Pratt noticed how the group interaction allowed his patients to discuss their shared experiences with tuberculosis and provide support to one another. He quickly realized that this group session had a positive impact on the patients’ emotional well-being, so he continued providing this treatment option for patients with many different conditions. This model for group therapy flourished into the affordable group therapy sessions that are now available to people across the globe. 

The group therapy structure that persists today is a psychotherapy treatment option where one or more therapists hold sessions for several people at once. Each therapy group has a different structure based on participants’ needs. It might be open, allowing new members to join at any time, or it might only provide treatment for invited members. Either way, the members of the group usually have a condition or struggle they share. 

Types of Group Therapy

One of the advantages of group therapy is that it can be tailored to provide services to many different groups of people. Groups exist for people struggling with a variety of conditions, including addiction, anxiety, depression, and trauma.

Group therapy can be based on a variety of therapeutic approaches. The most common structures are: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Groups based on CBT help members change their patterns of thinking, emotional reactions, and unhelpful behaviors. This is particularly helpful for people who suffer from anxiety and depression. It can help members learn to recognize how they’re feeling, identify negative thoughts, and replace them with positive thoughts. 
  • Psychoeducational therapy: Psychoeducational groups focus on teaching members about their mental health disorders. Members develop an understanding of how their disorders impact them, and they also learn skills to help them cope. This model embraces CBT principles.
  • Support groups: Support groups are often meant to help people who are struggling with grief or terminal illnesses. Members all have a shared loss of a loved one or a diagnosis of a terminal illness. Often, the group helps people confront and accept mortality, whether their own or that of a loved one, so they can process the loss and find a way to move on. 
  • Interpersonal therapy: Groups based on interpersonal therapy help members understand and develop interpersonal relationships. This can help people understand how their interpersonal relationships (or lack thereof) have an impact on their mental health. They can learn how to cultivate positive relationships while also improving the quality of all of their relationships. 
  • Skills development: Skills development groups provide a place for people with mental disorders or developmental disabilities to learn skills to help them in their daily lives. This most often includes social skills, as people in these groups can struggle with developing relationships. Group therapy offers a unique opportunity to practice social skills with real people in a supportive and therapeutic environment.

How Group Therapy Works

There are several types of group therapy. The same 11 principles apply to each type, despite their different structures. They were developed by Dr. Irvin D. Yalom as a result of his work with therapy groups. Therapy groups incorporate these principles to ensure a productive session:

  • Universality: Members can see and interact with other people with the same struggles, which helps them know they aren’t alone. 
  • Altruism: Group members have the opportunity to share their strengths and help each other. 
  • Interpersonal learning: People in group therapy can learn about themselves based on feedback and interactions with other members. 
  • Imitative behavior: Group members learn new behaviors from observing other members as well as the therapist facilitating the group. 
  • Instilling hope: There are different stages of healing represented by different members of the group. People who are just beginning treatment can see the positive outcomes experienced by other members who are further along in the process. 
  • The corrective reenactment of the primary family group: Group therapy can allow members to examine and heal from childhood wounds and unhealthy family dynamics. 
  • Development of socialization techniques: Members can try out new social skills in a structured and supportive setting.  
  • Catharsis: Being vulnerable enough to disclose emotions to the group helps with healing. 
  • Imparting information: Group members share information that helps all group members learn and grow.
  • Existential factors: Group members learn to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. 
  • Group cohesiveness: Members become close and develop an environment of acceptance and solidarity.  

What to Expect in Group Therapy

Expectations for group therapy can vary depending on the model or approach. Some therapists develop an agenda to guide members through skills and activities to help them make progress toward their goals. Others prefer to let the group determine the course of the session. 

Either way, each session is rich in dialogue from both the therapist and members. This is important to the group dynamic because it helps members become comfortable enough to share about themselves. Being vulnerable in this way helps create a cohesive group dynamic to propel them through their therapy journey together. 

Group Therapy Activities

Group therapy isn’t just limited to talking. Participating in other activities can be helpful to learning skills and well as promoting bonding among group members. Therapists may plan sessions with the following activities:

  • Sharing personal stories
  • Cooking
  • Painting and other forms of expressive art
  • Role-playing
  • Ice breakers 
  • Games

Benefits of Group Therapy

There are many benefits for group therapy. The group members provide an opportunity for  social practice and support that is not available with individual therapy. It is cost-effective for both agencies and members. It can also provide earlier access for members when individual therapists aren’t available. These groups can be offered in an online format for people who are homebound or prefer to participate from the comfort of their homes. 

The group dynamic gives members a safe place to share their feelings with supportive people. Members listen to each other’s perspectives and also give and receive mutual support. Personal growth for one member often translates to growth for other members as they share their experiences and approaches. 

Who Can Group Therapy Benefit?

People with many different lived experiences and diagnoses can benefit from group therapy. There are groups for many different topics, including:

Disadvantages of Group Therapy

There are some situations in which a group therapy format is inappropriate. People struggling with suicidal thoughts or who are in crisis should seek individual therapy, which can provide them with the focused attention and intervention they need. Individual therapy may also be more appropriate for people who are unable or unwilling to share their experiences with a group for whatever reason. 

Begin Your Journey Today

If you’re ready to start attending group therapy sessions, we can help. Finding a therapy group is easy and convenient with our therapist directory. Simply use the search function to find one near you to get started today.

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.