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Should I try group therapy or a support group?

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What do I need: a support group or group therapy? It can be tricky to figure out exactly what the differences are between the two. After all, they’re both groups focused on talking, aren’t they? Can they really be that different?

Joining any kind of group to share personal struggles and experiences can feel daunting, but speaking with others who have or are experiencing similar issues can offer a lot in return. Knowing what different ways each type of group may work can help you find the best method of support for you. It’s good to remember: it’s ok to try different options. It’s all about finding what works best for you, not sticking with a single option that you think should work for you.

Group therapy and support groups: what’s the difference?

While each group offers a different kind of support, both group counselling and support groups share some characteristics. Bringing together people who are dealing with similar issues or concerns in a safe environment, each offers you the space to explore sharing in a group setting, potentially helping you to increase your sense of self-awareness, make new connections with others, and gain a sense of community.

Counsellor Claire Barnes, Psychotherapist, MSC, UKCP, IGA explains the advantages of group therapy:

“Groups offer a range of perspectives and responses to you and your difficulties, which give an advantage over individual therapy where you only encounter the views of one other person. The experiences of being in a therapy group can feel closer to ‘real life’, at least partly because the other members are not there as professionals. This means that some difficulties ‘out there’ can be more obviously tackled ‘in here’.”

Both group therapy and support groups each have distinct boundaries for attendees to follow. While they offer the space to be open and candid, each often requires those taking part to remain respectful of each other. But how do the two types of group differ, and do they offer support for different issues?

Professional therapist or experienced individual – group therapy is typically led by a professionally qualified therapist, counsellor or psychologist who has experience within one or more specific areas. They may act as a facilitator, guiding the focus of group discussions or arranging group activities such as icebreakers, trust building activities, or psychological exercises designed to help individuals gain insight or increase their self-awareness.

Support groups may be run by a qualified professional or by others who have experienced similar issues themselves. Support groups generally offer a space for people who have or are sharing similar experiences or struggles, providing each other with support and a safe space to share. Available in-person or online, the focus of each meeting usually comes from discussions between group members (though someone may help steer the conversation at times).

Different coloured chairs are arranged in a circle, ready for a group session

Coping versus changing – one of the simplest ways to understand the differences between a support group and group therapy is to look at the primary purpose. Support groups are typically based around helping you learn to cope with a specific issue, e.g. helping you come to terms with the death of a loved one and sharing experiences on how others have learned to cope with their grief following a bereavement.

In group therapy, the focus is often on ways those attending want to change, start better understanding both their thoughts and their behaviours that may be leading to problems in other areas of their life.

Same or similar issues – support groups tend to focus on a single, common shared issue. Some of the better-known examples would be alcoholics anonymous (AA) or narcotics anonymous (NA). Although, support groups are available for a wide variety of issues, from coping with grief to supporting family members through their cancer diagnosis. Those attending a support group typically are coping with one similar issue or experience.

In group therapy, the experiences of the group can vary. Some may have a mixture of different issues, such as having members who are experiencing anxiety or depression, whilst others may only have people who are all experiencing a single issue.

Group therapy can be applied to a variety of approaches, helping with a number of different concerns. There are certain areas that are particularly thought to benefit from speaking and working together as part of a group dynamic, which can include addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), relationship counselling, self-harm, and schizophrenia.  

Group focus and dynamics – different types of groups each have different focuses. A support group often focuses on supporting and encouraging each other through the healing process. Sharing their own experiences in ways that can encourage, uplift, and strengthen each other, attendees are encouraged to listen respectfully and with empathy. Many support groups help each other learn how to cope with things they cannot change.

In group therapy, individuals may be encouraged to think about how they feel and behave both within the group and outside in their day-to-day lives, sharing how they feel about their circumstances and relationships. Encouraged to be honest and vulnerable, group members often give and receive feedback rather than purely encouragement from other members of the group.

For example, a bereavement support group may help you come to terms with your loss and discover ways you can cope with your grief. A therapy group may instead look at ways you can better understand your thoughts and behaviours, changing them and improving on any problems they may be causing you in other areas of your life.

A group of people stand together outside with the sun setting behind them

Counsellor Richard Dennison, BSc Psychology, MBACP explains the benefits of group therapy:

“Joining a therapy/personal growth group to look at how the individual is is often challenging. However, the rewards are great. There is space to appreciate how we are in these situations, to explore different ways of being in groups, increase self-awareness, and enjoy the company and feedback of others while allowing others to do the same. The safety and development can be a very uplifting experience.”

Each offers different levels of interaction – while it can vary from group to group, generally, members of support groups are encouraged to interact with each other if they run into one another outside of sessions. This could be anything from a friendly greeting, to asking how someone is feeling about issues they may have expressed concern about during a support group session.

Those who attend group therapy are generally encouraged to keep what happens in the room inside the room, rather than discussing sensitive things brought up within a group counselling session outside of that safe space.

Time commitment – support groups are typically open, meaning you can start or leave at any time. You are still encouraged to attend regularly, as this can be beneficial for both you and the group, however you are usually free to drop in when suits you.

Group therapy often requires more of a commitment from you. Typically asking for an initial commitment of two to three months, individuals are asked to attend each session as missing them can be more disruptive, or you may miss out on big disclosures made in one session that are discussed at a later date. While committing for several months may sound daunting, this can help individuals feel more comfortable opening up and sharing within sessions.

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Bonnie Evie Gifford

Written by Bonnie Evie Gifford

Bonnie Evie Gifford is a Senior Writer at Happiful.

Written by Bonnie Evie Gifford

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