You’ve decided to give group therapy a try. You’ve talked to friends who have been in group therapy, researched group therapy online, maybe you’ve even got the blessing of your individual therapist. So where do you find a group that is best suited for your needs?
I sat down with Molyn Leszcz, a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto and President-Elect of the American Group Psychotherapy Association (AGPA), a national organization of over 2000 group therapists. AGPA is the professional home to a wide range of group therapists from nearly every discipline, such as psychologists, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, clinical mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, pastoral counselors, occupational therapists, and creative arts therapists.
Here’s how Molyn Leszcz answered the following key questions about deciding what kind of group therapy is right for you:
1. What makes group therapy different from individual therapy?
Research consistently shows that both are effective therapies. Group therapy is an ideal way to improve interpersonal skills, which can offset stigma associated with social isolation or shame. Fellow group members provide support, feedback, and positive modeling while also challenging you. Additionally, groups also promote excellent coping skills.
2. What’s the first step in choosing a therapy group?
Try to determine what you want to work on; have clear goals and expectations. Ask yourself—do I need to gain skills in dealing with stress, depression, or anxiety? Am I struggling with substance use? This requires honest self-reflection. For example, a question you may ask is, "Why do I keep getting into conflicts with people in my social world?"
Different groups address specific concerns. Do your research about what kind of groups are available in your community and who leads them. Make sure that you see someone who is well trained as a group therapist, ideally someone who is a certified group psychotherapist (CGP). Group therapists often meet for an individual session to get to acquainted and to determine if it is a good fit.
3. What’s the difference between long-term and short-term groups? Do they have different goals?
Short-term groups (less than 8-12 weekly sessions) are more tailored to focus on a common problem—dealing with social anxiety, managing depression, stress reduction, or coping with loss or a medical illness. They may be educational in nature or use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches. Often these are groups that have start and end date with the same 8-12 members.
Longer-term groups are open-ended with members staying for ongoing weekly or alternate week sessions. Members leave when they feel their work is complete and new members may be added. Because of the greater length of time, members work on more personal, deeper levels.
Group therapy becomes a social laboratory. Frequently, a person may join a short-term group to gain skills and support in dealing with a divorce. Later they may decide to join a longer-term group to explore why the same relationship issues come up again and again.
4. How can I find out about group therapy available in my area?
The American Group Psychotherapy Association maintains a directory of therapists who meet their high training and professional standards. You can go to the AGPA website and click on “Find a Certified Group Therapist.” There are also more than 20 local group therapy associations across the country that are affiliated with AGPA. These are great resources for finding well-trained and qualified group therapists in your area. You can find out about them through AGPA or their local website. Your primary care provider may also be able to make a referral.
5. Can I continue to see my individual therapist while I’m in group therapy?
Combining the strengths of individual therapy with the strengths of group therapy can be particularly effective. It does require a good collaborative approach between the two therapists. Many excellent group therapists can also provide both types of therapy to their clients.