Self-help groups: can they replace psychotherapy?


One evening, several people gathered around a table at The Wing Women’s Club in New York. It was not the first time that events were held with the participation of celebrities, motivational lecturers and career coaches, but this time there was an unusual atmosphere. The theme of the meeting that evening was “Overcoming the Transitional Period,” the event itself served as a mutual support group for women, which allowed them to exchange experiences and communicate with people with similar problems.

A variety of topics were discussed – from parting with partners to a career change, some of those present shared their advice, comforting those who were ready to burst into tears at any time. The meeting was a moment of catharsis, after its completion, many participants said that they seemed to have attended a psychotherapy session.

“I myself work with a psychotherapist, but at the same time I am open to all forms of support – psychological and even spiritual. At the meeting, I was silent, but listened to other people’s stories, worried with these people, and this also helped. I am interested to know what others have to go through, because when I am alone, I think only about my situation, it seems that I alone have to experience this, but here I know that this is not so, ”says one of the participants in the meeting, 31 year old Gina Roco.

MNDFL guided meditation studios in New York also regularly host self-help group meetings. They are open to everyone who wants to talk on a given topic and share their feelings and feelings. They recently discussed a law on severe abortion restriction passed in Alabama in May 2019.

The organizers suggested that the participants of the event, for starters, simply silently reflect on the feelings that the new law provoked for them. After the meeting, everyone told what they felt, realizing that they were not alone in their experiences.

The composition of the group will be different each time, which will give you the opportunity to chat with a variety of people

“It seems to me that a sense of community and unity arises from common experience and mutual support,” says Ellie Burrow, founder of the MNDFL studio.

A simple Google search will show that there are a great many such communities – both specialized groups that help overcome difficult grief or defeat alcoholism, and self-help groups of “general purpose”, whose members share experience in overcoming everyday difficulties.

Studies show that it really works — members of self-help groups say that classes give them strength and confidence and help overcome their feelings of isolation. These results are encouraging, since individual psychotherapy is not available to everyone and not everywhere.

What are self-help groups?

Mutual aid groups exist in many different forms, but the general definition sounds something like this: this is any space within which a group of people gathers to discuss similar experiences. For example, one group may deal with the problem of overcoming loss, the other with anxiety, but in any case, the group members experience similar experiences.

“Anyone can help lead a self-help group, anyone who has experienced the same things as the other participants, even if he does not have a special education or license. Of course, it can be a professional – a psychologist, a psychotherapist, a social worker, ”explains Kimmy Ramotar, a clinical psychologist from New York.

“Groups gather regularly, most often once a week, meetings usually last about an hour. Such meetings are of great benefit to many participants – when they communicate with people experiencing the same difficulties, it becomes much easier for them. This helps to overcome the feeling of isolation, to understand that they are not alone with their pain, ”adds Ramotar.

Sometimes, to make it easier for you, just listen to the story of another person with similar problems

In each group, meetings are held in different ways, but usually the moderator invites you to talk on a specific topic and asks relevant questions. For example, if the theme of the group is grief, the host can invite the participants to talk about some situation in which they managed to channel their difficult experiences into a productive direction.

Then the conversation usually takes place in free form, the participants communicate with each other. The facilitator makes sure that they do not go far from the topic and show respect for each other.

You do not need to visit the group regularly; you can come as often (or rarely) as you want. Therefore, the composition of the group will be different each time, which will give you the opportunity to chat with a variety of people.

Mutual Assistance Group – Not Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy (group or individual) is always carried out by a professional psychologist who has the appropriate license. Treatment usually follows a specific plan. It is important to attend therapy sessions regularly, without gaps – once a week, twice a month – depending on the agreement with the therapist.

“In therapy – both group and individual – it is necessary to talk with the therapist at each session, and often also do homework. Therapy usually has a specific goal – to reduce the manifestations of anxiety or depression, help the couple solve problems in their relationships, understand the cause of some emotions and feelings, etc., ”explains psychologist Lee Faustino, a leading self-help group for people with depressive disorders in New York .

Mutual support group meetings, in turn, are not always held under the guidance of specialists. You do not have to say anything if you do not want to. “Sometimes, to make it easier for you, it’s enough to just listen to another person’s story with similar problems,” emphasizes Li Faustino.

In addition, therapy can be quite expensive (and not always covered by medical insurance). A visit to a self-help group in most cases is completely free (or is very inexpensive). It is also worth remembering the various ethical standards in psychotherapy and mutual support groups. For example, you can expect that everything you tell the therapist will remain between you. In self-help groups, the principle of confidentiality is not always respected.

“The facilitator may ask the participants not to retell to outsiders any of what was discussed at the meeting, but he does not have the opportunity to monitor compliance with these requirements. As for the therapist, both ethical principles and the law are forbidden to disclose confidential information of clients – apart from exceptional cases when it comes to a threat to life or health, ”Kimmy Ramotar explains.

Self-help groups: can they replace psychotherapy?

Self-help groups allow you to get to know and communicate directly with people suffering from the same problems.

According to Li Faustino, first of all, people go to a mutual assistance group to feel that they are not alone. “Since it’s not necessary to say something at the group’s meetings, for some it’s the easiest way to get help,” Faustino says.

“Of course, individual therapy can give strength and confidence, but the same result can be obtained in another way – with the help of a mutual assistance group. The band members support each other on an emotional level, and this support gives them hope.

They help each other, motivating and encouraging. They exchange experience and knowledge – in the group you can get not only emotional support, but also valuable information – for example, on fighting the disease or solving problems with divorce, ”says Kimmy Ramotar.

Is a self-help group suitable for you?

If you cannot afford individual psychotherapy, or it is especially important for you to communicate with “mates in misfortune,” you should try to attend a mutual support group. This option is also well suited for those whose schedules are too unpredictable for regular sessions with a psychotherapist.

But there are certain disadvantages. If you react too sensitively to the problems of others or, on the contrary, do not want to contact anyone, most likely such groups will not suit you.

“People with tragic fate and severe symptoms meet in support groups, sometimes they behave inappropriately or do not respect personal boundaries. It may be difficult for some to listen to their stories for an hour or longer, ”explains Faustino.

It is necessary to be guided by common sense and listen to yourself: if the group and the leader cause unpleasant emotions, it is better to leave

Most experts nevertheless believe that self-help groups cannot completely replace psychotherapy in the treatment of diagnosed mental disorders (e.g., depression).

“Some do without psychotherapy – the group gives them a sense of community and unity that the therapist cannot give. But to solve serious problems that interfere with everyday life, groups may not be enough. I usually recommend a combination of psychotherapy and work in a self-help group to my patients, and in really serious cases, also medication, ”Li Faustino explains.

Be prepared for the fact that you may have to try several options until you find the right one for you. Some groups adhere to a narrow topic, while others can discuss a variety of topics. Groups also vary significantly in number of participants. And of course, the atmosphere largely depends on the personality of the host.

“I think the most important thing is that the group is led by a person you trust. Here you need to be guided by common sense and listen to yourself: if the participants and the presenter cause unpleasant emotions, it is better to leave, ”Li Faustino sums up.

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