Group therapy and individual therapy are two sides of a many-sided therapeutic die. But that does not mean they are wholly equivalent. So, which is the best option when seeking mental health treatment? Let’s find out with a comparison of group therapy vs individual therapy treatment modalities.
Understanding Both Types of Therapy
Understanding the use of group therapy sessions versus individual talk therapy can help you gain better insight into the treatment process for many forms of mental health problems and why you might want to seek out one type of therapy over the other.
When you are seeking help for a mental disorder, substance use problem, or co-occurring disorder, therapy will indubitably play a central role. The idea behind therapy is to provide guidance for healthy introspection and, as a result, a better self-image. People who go through therapy learn different ways to interpret their own thoughts and emotions, manage and organize their thinking, and learn to respond better to unwanted or uncontrolled emotions.
Therapy is a Part of a Larger Treatment Plan
Therapy alone is not always enough to treat a mental health issue or an addiction. It is usually part of a larger treatment plan that may incorporate rehab through an outpatient or inpatient clinic, medication, experiential therapy, alternative therapies, and even unconventional interventions such as eye movement therapy or transcranial magnetic stimulation.
These therapies and treatments are not cures – they are management techniques, improving resilience against bad days, and providing training for coping mechanisms that help subdue symptoms and lead to an overall better quality of life.
A reason both individual and group therapies remain a mainstay in psychiatry is because they are effective first-line treatments, and often play an important role in continuing recovery after initial treatment.
Group Therapy vs Individual Therapy
Group therapy involves multiple patients and at least one therapist. Individual therapy refers to any face-to-face therapy between a patient and their therapist. There are differences and limitations to both group therapy sessions and individual therapy. In other words, one is not strictly better than the other, and the ideal approach will always depend on the circumstances and context of a patient’s condition and the progress they are making throughout their treatment.
Individual Therapy: Focusing on Private Sessions
On an individual level, some patients may respond better to group therapy than one-on-one therapy. Or it may be the total opposite for them. Individual therapy has the benefit of being a private session between two people, and therapists can earn their patient’s trust by keeping what they talk about in confidence. This helps patients who have a hard time talking around others or wish not to discuss their thoughts and experiences with more than one person.
Group Therapy: Sharing Experiences with Others
Group therapy sessions, on the other hand, have the benefit of involving several people with very individual circumstances and experiences but also a number of key shared experiences.
It helps other present patients learn that they are not alone and that their feelings, worries, hopes, and nightmares are shared by others. It helps them realize that others have gone through the same thing and perhaps even learned to cope with it. It helps them see how to heal. And it helps them inspire hope in others through their own experiences, battles, victories, and healing.
Neither is Better than the Other
There are pros and cons to either form of therapy, and in most cases, psychiatrists and therapists will recommend both group and individual therapy sessions to a patient.
If a patient responds better to one type of therapy than the other, then that type may be prioritized. If they do not wish to engage in a group setting or have a hard time talking about anything while alone with a therapist, their treatment might focus solely on group therapy or individual therapy.
Neither is better than the other overall, but group therapy or individual therapy may be better for some patients than others.
A Primer on Individual Therapy
Individual therapy, or talk therapy, is older than most people realize. While images of mental health treatment in decades past are shaped by stories of ignorance and maltreatment, the idea of treating mental health problems through “talking cures” dates as far back as Ancient Greece.
Greek philosophers postulated that mental and physical health were interlinked and that mental health issues could be treated much the same way physical health issues could be, versus the more common viewpoint that mental illness was supernatural or a sign of otherworldly influence. They were not alone in this thinking.
Hippocrates’ understanding of health as a balance of the humors was elaborated upon and studied by other philosophers, and Islamic physicians, alongside Aristotle’s writings on the nature of the soul.
Mental Health and Environmental Factors
While superstition rose in the Middle Ages, medieval physicians and theologians equally held the belief that mental health was shaped by environmental factors and that mental health was often the result of chemical imbalances described through “black bile,” and later, theorized as a result of an environmental impact on the cognitive processing in each of the brain’s three linear fluid-filled ventricles.
Mental Disorders and Emotional Disconnect
In the 16th century, philosopher and medical chemist Paracelsus concluded that mental disorder was a result of an emotional disconnect between a person and the world, advocating for treatments that, while not named psychotherapy, were very similar.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the practices of mesmerism, hypnotism, and talking cures led to the development of psychoanalysis, through the works of Freud and Breuer. Their understanding of mental health came from the belief that subconscious and conscious thinking together influenced emotional wellbeing, and that experiences from childhood onwards shape the way we think and feel.
Their apprentices went on to further develop and contribute to psychodynamic therapy, culminating in talk therapy as we know it today. Individual therapy has since given way to different types of modern talk therapy, including:
- Psychodynamic Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
- Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy
- And more.
Incorporating Both into Treatment
Individual and group therapy sessions are led by trained professionals through a mental health program, who make use of different treatment methods to encourage patients to gain a better understanding and control over unwanted thoughts and resulting feelings.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, helps patients identify and dissociate from harmful ways of thinking, in turn changing their behavior. Dialectical behavior therapy, on the other hand, was developed to help patients with borderline personality disorder reconcile their erroneous beliefs with reality and defuse delusional thinking.
Group therapy sessions may incorporate different forms of therapy to help members within the group make progress on an individual level, through the dynamic that the group creates. Group therapy became more popular in the aftermath of World War II when psychologists discovered that treating groups of combat veterans led to more positive developments than trying to treat them individually. Social support and the benefits of a group dynamic can inspire progress in a person’s mental health in ways a one-on-one session might not.
Your treatment plan may incorporate both solo and group sessions. Talking with your therapist about how either makes you feel can help them better determine what kind of treatment to prioritize in your case.