Personal Vs. Group Therapy: Which Mental Health Journey Is Right for You?
Sometimes the company helps. Other times a group can hold you back.
If you are ready to take action on a mental health issue that is hindering your happiness and success in life, entering therapy is a great move. Therapy is often the best way to help heal past traumas, overcome current barriers – such as addiction or anxiety – and to help you thrive in life. When you begin therapy, you may be looking at a journey of a few months, a few years, or even making a lifelong commitment to mental health support.
People can and should approach therapy from many different ways because no two people are the same. There is, however, one binary question you need to ask as you consider therapy: is individual therapy or group therapy the right choice for me?
We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of both types of therapy, but before we do, just note this: you don’t have to pick either or – many people attend group therapy sessions and work with a therapist in a one-on-one model. You may benefit the most from doing both, in fact.
What to Expect From Personal Therapy
The first few times you meet with your therapist may feel a bit awkward. Your therapist needs to take time to get to know you – and you they – before any sort of true treatment begins. Initially, you will discuss what has motivated you to seek treatment, you will be asked lots of questions about your past as well as your current life. It’s important to be honest with your therapist right from the start, even if that means declining to answer some questions or talk about some topics.
The actual session will usually last an hour, and will likely be conducted in a comfortable setting where you sit facing your therapist – few mental health professionals use the patient on the couch arrangement anymore. Regardless of the particulars of the setting, remember that the first few sessions are as much about you feeling out your therapist as they are about he or she getting to know you. If you don’t feel you have found a match, you are not beholden to stick with that person, and you should not, in fact. It’s your money, your time, and your mental health, so find someone that works for you.
What to Expect From Group Therapy Sessions
Group therapy sessions are usually weekly events with a group consisting of as few as four or five people to as many as 15 – much larger than that, and a group becomes too large to create the safe and intimate setting needed. Sessions are usually led by one trained mental health professional – a psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker, e.g. – and in some cases will be administered by two or more therapists.
Some therapy groups are open, allowing new members to join on an ongoing basis, while others close once formed. You can choose which model you are more comfortable with. Therapy groups usually have a specific issue attendees have in common, such as dealing with grief, with anger, with substance abuse, and many other topics. Sessions typically last an hour, and outside of the group, participants are discouraged from interacting, thus to preserve the honesty and communication within the meetings.
The Benefits of Individual Therapy Sessions
When you are speaking in private to a therapist, you can feel confident that anything you say is indeed completely private. Therapists will never share what you share with them (the only exception being an expressed intent to cause harm to themselves or to others – therapists must legally report this, per Huff Post) and they will not judge you for what you say. Thus, you can be truly open and honest, knowing your confidentiality is inviolate. Your therapist may be the first person with whom you ever share some of your memories, dreams, past traumas, and current thoughts, which means that in a private therapy session you may finally begin to deal with things that have been consuming you inside.
In private therapy sessions, your therapist will have plenty of questions to ask you and can lead you when needed, but you can dictate most of the conversation, bringing up topics you want to talk about, requesting support and guidance as you wish, and also halting parts of the session with which you are not comfortable.
And, on a practical level, private therapy sessions can be planned for a time that suits your schedule.
Why Group Therapy Can Be a Great Thing
When you meet for therapy in a group, you get one obvious benefit right off the bat: you are not alone. Group therapy creates an immediate community and sense of support because you know what you are feeling need not isolate you or compel you to question yourself. Meeting with a group of people can also motivate you to not skip sessions, and when you are in treatment for a mental health issue, staying the course is of the utmost importance.
You will also be comforted and heartened to hear other people’s thoughts, hopes, struggles, and stories. In a group therapy session, the therapist leading the group is not the only one who can help. Every member of the group is likely to have something to offer to everyone else – that very much includes yourself. And helping others to heal and grow stronger can be a major boon to our own wellbeing.
One other major benefit to group therapy cannot be overlooked: the cost. Group therapy sessions are often offered for much lower costs than individual appointments, costing as little as a third the price of one-on-one sessions, per Hart Grove Hospital. And in many cases, you can even find group therapy sessions that are offered for free. (It’s important not to confuse self-help groups, such as AA or gambling addiction meetings, for example, as therapy, per say – sessions need to be led by a trained and licensed mental health professional in order to be considered true therapy.)
The Drawbacks to Individual Therapy vs. Group Therapy
The largest problem with individual therapy is simply the cost. Unless you can find a therapist whose sessions are completely covered by your health insurance – a rarity, unfortunately – therapy can be very expensive, there are no two ways about it.
During private therapy sessions, it can be hard to share some of your thoughts, fears, and concerns with that one other person listening intently. In a group setting, you will likely feel more supported and encouraged to share things, whereas it can, ironically, be more intimidating to be honest with one person.
So too can groups bring out more of your concerns than a single therapist is likely to do, as many people are sharing many things; if your therapist fails to ask you the right questions or give helpful prompts, then sessions may not be all that beneficial. And finally, there is the issue of transference, which is, per Health Line “a phenomenon that occurs when people redirect emotions or feelings about one person to an entirely separate individual.” It’s not uncommon for patients to develop romantic feelings for their therapist, or to begin to see them more as a friend than a mental health professional – if transference occurs, unfortunately a new therapist must be sought in most cases.
The Cons of Group Therapy vs. Private Sessions
In group therapy, there is always the chance that the conversation is going to move into a place that is very uncomfortable for you. When you are surrounded by people who are dealing with the same issues you are, triggers are not just possible, they are probable, and unlike with a private therapy session where you are in control, you can’t just stop a part of the conversation at will.
Another drawback to group therapy is that, by the very nature of the arrangement, you are not the primary focus of the session; you might not feel like you get enough time to be properly heard nor that you get enough support, guidance, and care given the divided focus of the therapist leading the group.
Then there are the logistics: you can’t schedule group therapy sessions for times that work for you. Quite the opposite, in fact, as you’ll need to make your plans around the scheduled meetings.
Finally, there is always a chance that what you share in a group will not remain confidential. While psychologists and social workers are duty bound to hold your trust, other members of a group may not be so reliable even if they have professed an intention to maintain everyone’s privacy.