When we think of psychotherapy, we often think about an standard individual therapy setting with a psychologist. This is understandable because this is what is most often depicted in movies and in books. Group therapy, which is frequently overlooked as a therapeutic option, presents as a setting in which individuals are able to interact with a trained therapist/psychologist and with other individuals experiencing similar targeted problems. Group therapy may be used in treatment of a variety of disorders ranging from relationship problems to trauma and grief. As a less expensive option, group therapy may be used as an alternative to individual therapy or as a supplemental treatment.

In the group setting, individuals are able to share personal issues and experiences, receiving feedback from the group. For this reason, group therapy offers a unique sense of support and accountability that individual therapy might not be able to. Therapists leading group therapy sessions can use a variety of methods stemming from humanistic, cognitive behavioral, and/or psychoanalytic approaches. While we might be primed to think that effective psychotherapy only fits into the mold of individualized approaches, evidence suggests that there may be something more than most think to group therapy settings.

Is It Effective?

As with any approach, a reasonable for individuals who are unsure about group therapy to question whether this type of therapeutic approach is as effective as individualized psychotherapy and/or other treatment methods. Several meta-analyses and other individual studies have focused on this issue and have concluded that there actually is no difference in the effects of individual therapy and group therapy – that is, they both yield the same significance in their results.5,7

One of the more researched forms of group therapy is cognitive-behavioral group therapy (CBGT). CBGT, when compared to no therapy, has shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression while increasing perceived quality of life and satisfaction with life in patients of outpatients clinics.6 It’s effectiveness has been demonstrated Further studies have demonstrated group CBT’s effectiveness in elderly populations.9 One study found that after participating in 6 sessions of group CBT, more than a quarter of patients with comorbid anxiety and depression (60 years and older) met recovery criteria; these results remained for at least three months.1 While there are many studies specific to elderly populations, group therapy is not isolated to this group. Improvements in anxiety have also been noted in adolescents who have received transdiagnostic cognitive-behavioral group therapy.8 Similarly, cognitive-behavioral group therapy has also shown to be effective in reducing depression and suicidal thoughts in the adolescent population.4

So what about group therapy methods other than CGBT? While there, in general, is more research out there identifying CGBT as an effective method of group therapy, several researchers have demonstrated that other forms may be as equally effective. For example, when cognitive-behavioral group therapy was compared to mindfulness and acceptance-based group therapy (MAGT), both treatments produced similar results in terms of anxiety reduction.3 Further, group psychotherapy, which focuses more on group dynamics rather than a specific approach, was also found to be equally as effective as cognitive-behavioral group therapy in a sample college students.2

No matter the approach, group therapy offers a comforting environment that realizes the similarities between the challenges that humans face. A significant factor that plays into the effectiveness of group therapy in treating disorders like depression or anxiety is that group interaction, by nature, reduces isolation. Individuals who participate in group therapy may be encouraged by the fact that they are not alone in their struggles. While the majority of evidence presented here was focused on group therapy’s efficacy in the treatment of depression and/or anxiety disorders, it is important to note that group therapy is flexible in that it can address various concerns, improving upon coping mechanisms, emotional intelligence and overall wellbeing.

1. Bains, M., Scott, S., Kellett, S., & Saxon, D. (2014). Group psychoeducative cognitive-behaviour therapy for mixed anxiety and depression with older adults. Aging & Mental Health, 1-9.

2. Bjornsson, Andri S., Brosse, L. Cinnamon Bidwell, Alisha L., Carey, Gregory, Hauser, Monika, Mackiewicz Seghete, Kristen L., Schulz-Heik, R. Jay, . . . Craighead, W. Edward. (2013). Cognitive-behavioral group therapy versus group psychotherapy for social anxiety disorder among college students: A randomized trial. (Report). Depression and Anxiety, 30(11), 1145.

3. Kocovski, Fleming, Hawley, Huta, & Antony. (2013). Mindfulness and acceptance-based group therapy versus traditional cognitive behavioral group therapy for social anxiety disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 51(12), 889-898.

4. Labelle, R. (2012). Cognitive-behavioral group therapy for depressed and suicidal adolescents. Neuropsychiatrie De L’enfance Et De L’adolescence, 60(5), S123.

5. McRoberts, C., Burlingame, G. M., & Hoag, M. J. (1998). Comparative efficacy of individual and group psychotherapy: A meta-analytic perspective. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, And Practice, 2(2), 101-117. doi:10.1037/1089-2699.2.2.101

6. Oei, & Mcalinden. (2014). Changes in quality of life following group CBT for anxiety and depression in a psychiatric outpatient clinic. Psychiatry Research, 220(3), 1012-1018.

7. Ross, M., & Scott, M. (1985). An evaluation of the effectiveness of individual and group cognitive therapy in the treatment of depressed patients in an inner city health centre. The Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 35(274), 239–242.

8. Sharma, Mehta, & Sagar. (2017). Efficacy of transdiagnostic cognitive-behavioral group therapy for anxiety disorders and headache in adolescents. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 46, 78-84.

9. Wuthrich, & Rapee. (2013). Randomised controlled trial of group cognitive behavioural therapy for comorbid anxiety and depression in older adults. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 51(12), 779-786.

by Callie Patterson

Callie Patterson is a graduate student pursuing a degree in psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University.

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