Group psychotherapy is a type of therapy that occurs with a number of clients meeting together in a group. The group is often led by a therapist with a particular theoretical orientation.
Group members may have similar presenting problems or issues and may share common treatment goals. This may include treatment of emotional or behavioral disorders or remediation of psychological problems that interfere with functioning.
Some types of group therapy focus on helping people change their ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Groups with an educational focus (known as psychoeducation) help members learn specific coping skills (Corey, 2008).
Therapists from a variety of theoretical perspectives conduct group therapy, using approaches and techniques consistent with these theories. These are psychoanalyticOpens in new window, AdlerianOpens in new window, psychodramaOpens in new window, existentialOpens in new window, person-centeredOpens in new window, GestaltOpens in new window, transactional analysisOpens in new window, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)Opens in new window, rational emotive therapyOpens in new window, reality therapyOpens in new window, and solution-focused brief therapy groupsOpens in new window. Group therapists may be clinical or counseling psychologists, licensed mental health counselors, or clinical social workers.
Boston physician Joseph Hersey PrattOpens in new window started the first psychotherapy group in 1905 with tuberculosis outpatients at Massachusetts General HospitalOpens in new window (Gladding, 2004). These group members found their regular meetings to be informative, supportive, and therapeutic.
In the 1920s, Viennese psychiatrist Jacob L. MorenoOpens in new window developed psychodrama (a group technique) and introduced the term group psychotherapy. In psychodramaOpens in new window, members participate in unreheased role-plays, with group members playing the parts of protagonist, supporting actors (auxiliaries), and audience members and with the group leader acting as director.
German-American social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s field theory concepts of the 1930s and 1940s became the basis for the Tavistock small study groups in Great Britain and the T-group movement in the United States.
T-groups (where the T stands for training) evolved from a focus on task accomplishment to a focus on interpersonal relationships. German-American psychiatrist Fritz PerlsOpens in new window utilized a Gestalt therapyOpens in new window approach with groups in the 1940s.
In the 1960s and 1970s, American psychologists William SchutzOpens in new window and Jack GibbOpens in new window emphasized a humanistic aspect to T-groups, and American psychologist Carl RogersOpens in new window developed the encounter group. These types of groups became the model for growth-oriented group approaches (Gladding, 2004).
The group therapy movement of the 1960s influenced the ongoing development of family therapyOpens in new window, which shares some features with group therapy.
There are similar theoretical underpinnings in group and family therapyOpens in new window. Both groups and families focus on problem behaviors, influences between people and the environment, and the influences of family on individual behavior. However, because a family has a shared history and multigenerational influences, family work calls for different techniques than working with a group of unrelated individuals.
Families are also different because of family roles, multiple complex relationships within families, and differences in status and power within a family. A concept of group dynamics that is important to both group and family therapy has to do with communication. It is important to make a distinction between the content (what is said) and the process (how it is communicated) of communication.
Group therapists use a wide range of techniques, including focusing on group process through discussion, inducing regression to earlier experiences, and helping members reexperience traumatic situations so that catharsis (emotional release) can occur.
Through the group process, members gain insight into past decisions and behaviors that interfere with current functioning. The group therapist helps members develop a corrective emotional experience and to make new decisions about themselves and others as they interact with their environment.
Benefits of Group Therapy
Some benefits of group therapy may include:
- a sense of universality (learning that one is not alone; that others share similar issues and goals),
- installation of hope and mutual support,
- the opportunity to help others (as well as to receive support from peers),
- development of socialization and problem-solving strategies,
- interpersonal learning, catharsis, bonding with other group members, and
- improved functioning (Gladding, 2004).
Group therapy can be an efficient and cost-effective way to help people with similar goals or concerns. However, not all individuals in all situations are appropriate for group therapy. For example, individuals who are unequal in status or power (e.g., employees and managers in a company) might not all benefit together in a group that focuses on personal issues.
Likewise, group therapy might not be the most appropriate treatment for children who all have problems with disruptive behaviorOpens in new window. Some individuals might benefit more from other types of therapies (e.g., individual psychotherapy, medication) than from group therapy.
A trained mental health practitioner may be able to recommend appropriate therapeutic interventions after a thorough intake and assessment and consideration of an individual’s presenting problems, background, and circumstances.
- Corey, G. (2008). Theory and practice of group counseling (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
- Gladding, S.T. (2004). Counseling: A compreheinsive profession (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.