The Benefit of Groups and What is a Therapeutic Group

By Margy Davis-Mintun, LCSW

Group work has been around in the United States since the early 1900’s used primarily by Social Workers until the late 1960’s when “encounter groups” made group work popular. There are a variety of groups, most known are groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotic Anonymous which are support groups around a common theme. Intensive out patient and inpatient hospital programs have groups that tend to be more psycho educational in nature, where the purpose is to increase cognitive understanding of behaviors and promote change.

The type of group I will be describing is what is called therapeutic groups. These groups are closed, meaning there is a designated group membership meeting for a predetermined length of time. The nature of this group is to create a safe environment in which to experiment with getting and giving feedback and exploring new behaviors and responses in a social context.

Therapeutic groups tend to contain elements that enable a simulation of family and community experiences. In this context, a member can address issues of family of origin and break through past barriers in order to find release from old ways of being which originated in the family. Societal and cultural discourses can also be addressed and promote how members of the group can respond to the community in a different way.

These groups also allow for members to provide support to each other both in the form of understanding and empathy as well as support around gentle confrontation allowing members to experience conflict in a positive manner and to see themselves through the eyes of others.

An important aspect of group therapy comes from the group context allowing the member to receive feedback about how they are seen by others and in what ways they generate being seen as genuinely who they are and/or being seen in the manner they want to portray themselves. Even beyond those two choices, group members may see aspects of each other that are “shadow” (out of our awareness) that an individual may perceive they conceal.

The objective of group therapy is to increase self awareness, increase social comfort, allow exploration of new behaviors, provide support, develop skills, and promote more genuine interactions with others.

The format of group work is open ended, with facilitators providing opportunities for sharing within the group, encouraging risk taking and openly talking with others about one’s experiences. The facilitator also encourages feedback and participation of members in providing support to each other. Reflection by the person “working in group” and by the group members is another added benefit to therapeutic group therapy.

Group therapy is based on the premise of confidentiality, so that what is shared in the group remains private and individuals are honored in this manner. Group therapy also is based on a screening process by facilitators to assure that members are well suited for this therapeutic process and ready for group work. Sometimes there is a theme that defines the nature of the group and other times its open and the members themselves bring forth the themes they are working on.

In group therapy the work occurs both by the individual who in that circumstance is identified as “working” on an issue as well as the participants who are witness to the work and are impacted by similar themes in their own lives. This unique element of group therapy enriches the process for all members. The universality of the human experience is one of the most powerful elements of group therapy.

Groups are generally less expensive than individual psychotherapy and the experiences generated are often multiplied for every person in the group. The dynamics of multiple experiences and reflections often means more feedback and support than what individual psychotherapy provides. Each time a person does therapeutic work, this in turns “sparks” therapeutic work and reflections for everyone in the group.