Are Support Groups A Good Alternative To Therapy?

Experts share how the cost, process and outcomes compare to individual therapy sessions.

On a Tuesday morning in June, several people were huddled around a table at the women’s networking and co-working space The Wing in New York. While the club is no stranger to hosting several events involving celebrities, motivational speakers and career coaches, this time, the tone was quite different. The event was titled “Navigating Through Transitions,” and it served as a support group where women were allowed to share their experiences and hear from other people going through similar issues.

Topics included everything from breakups to career transitions, and several in attendance offered their best advice, consoling others in the room who were close to tears. The entire meeting was cathartic, and when it was over, many reported feeling like they just attended something akin to therapy.

“I’m going to therapy as well, but I’m open to all sorts of support ― be it mental health or even spiritual health,” said Gina Roco, 31, an event attendee and member of The Wing. “Even though I didn’t speak, I think being able to listen to other people’s perspectives can help you, and you can commiserate together. I’m curious to know what other people are going through because when I’m by myself, I’m only thinking about my situation ― thinking that I’m the only one who’s going through that ― but here, I know that it’s not the case.”

Similarly, MNDFL, a guided meditation studio in New York, also regularly hosts what they call “support sits,” which are gatherings anyone can attend to reflect on and discuss how they’re feeling about a certain topic. After the restrictive Alabama abortion bill passed in May, the company recently hosted one for those who identify as women.

Facilitators encouraged attendees to spend some time quietly focusing on the emotions they had as a result of the policy. Post-class, attendees talked about the kinds of feelings that came up after they realised they weren’t alone in their experiences.

I believe community is something that happens at the intersection of shared experience and support,” MNDFL founder Ellie Burrows said about the inspiration behind starting the sits as part of the company’s meditation offering.

And, of course, these aren’t the only kinds of support groups available for people. Just a quick Google search will reveal several options, ranging from targeted meetings for issues like grief or alcohol abuse to general ones for simply navigating life.

And they really work: Studies show that individuals attending support groups find the entire process empowering and can diminish feelings of isolation. It’s a hopeful concept, especially given the rising costs of individual therapy in the United States, not to mention the lack of access to it in rural cities where there are fewer available mental health professionals.

Curious if utilising a support group is right for you? Below is everything you need to know about the process and whether you should consider attending one.

First thing’s first: What even is a support group?

A support group can take on many forms, but the absolute loose definition is any space that allows a number of people to come together to discuss their shared experiences. For instance, one may focus on loss, while another may focus on anxiety, but the overarching idea is that the members are experiencing similar emotions.

Support groups may be led by anyone, including someone who simply shares the experience of fellow group members, someone who has no special group training or license, or by a professional, such as a psychologist or social worker,” explained Kimmy Ramotar, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York.

“These meetings occur regularly, mostly once a week, for about an hour,” she continued. “Many people benefit from attending a support group because they tend to feel comforted by an environment where everyone shares similar struggles. This makes people feel less isolated and alone in their pain.”

“Many people benefit from attending a support group because they tend to feel comforted by an environment where everyone shares similar struggles.”

- Kimmy Ramotar, licensed clinical psychologist

Every group is different, but, generally, you can expect the practitioner to discuss a certain theme and ask questions about it in each meeting. For instance, if the topic is grief, the practitioner may ask attendees to mention a time when they felt they could deal with those feelings in a productive way.

After that, the conversation generally stays open, with attendees having discussions with one another. The practitioner will always try to make sure that the attendees stay true to the topic and respect others.

It’s not expected that you appear regularly, either. You can go to support groups as often or as little as you want. Due to this, you might not always have the same people attending each time, which allows you to experience a range of different forms of support and personality types.

A support group isn’t the same process (or price) as therapy.

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Therapy ― whether it’s group therapy, psychotherapy or otherwise ― is run by a licensed mental health professional. The process often comes with different approaches and a plan for treatment. It’s essential to attend therapy as often as outlined by your therapist, whether it be weekly, twice a month or whatever frequency has been decided.

“In therapy, whether that’s group or individual, you have to talk to your therapist and likely will have homework involved as well,” said Li Faustino, chair of the Mood Disorders Support Group of New York. “These generally have specific goals, such as easing a particular mood disorder or helping couples navigate relationship issues, and explore why people feel the way they do.”

On the other hand, support groups aren’t necessarily run by licensed professionals. If you don’t want to talk, you absolutely don’t need to ― sometimes even listening may be enough to be beneficial, Faustino said.

The costs associated with therapy also are often much higher (and not always covered by insurance). Support group costs can vary, with some having a small fee while others are completely free.

There are also different ethical standards between the two, and it’s important to keep that in mind, Ramotar added. For individual therapy, you can expect your therapist to abide by a confidentiality requirement. Support groups don’t necessarily have to adhere to those obligations.

This essentially means that, although members of the support group may be asked not to disclose anything that was shared in the group to anyone outside of the group, it is not possible to ensure that group members follow this expectation once they leave the group,” Ramotar said. “In individual therapy, however, therapists are ethically and legally obligated to maintain confidentiality of what the client discusses, only with some general limitations if anyone is at serious risk of being harmed.”

Support groups connect you directly with people who also share your experience.

Community is the number one reason people attend support groups, according to Faustino. People feel less alone when they realise that there are other people who feel the same way they do.

“Since there’s no pressure to speak either, people feel like it may be an easier way to start getting help for their issues,” she said.

While feelings of empowerment can certainly come with individual therapy, this can also come through support groups ― albeit in a different way, Ramotar said.

“Group members often offer emotional support to each other, which increases one’s sense of hope.”

- Ramotar

Group members often offer emotional support to each other, which increases one’s sense of hope,” Ramotar said. “Group members sometimes take on the role of a helper to their fellow members, motivating and encouraging them. They share coping skills and knowledge with one another. Therefore, support groups not only provide emotional support, they have the potential of enhancing one’s knowledge of a certain topic, such as a disease or how to effectively navigate a divorce.”

As a result, many times, people find the most benefit from attending both therapy and a support group in tandem.

So, is a support group for you?

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If you can’t afford individual therapy or would prefer to connect with others experiencing the same as you, it could be good to start with a support group. A support group might also be more beneficial if your schedule is too erratic to maintain regular therapy appointments.

There are a few downsides. If you’re someone who is deeply affected by other people’s issues ― or, inversely, if you do not want to connect with others ― then support groups may not be the best option for you.

“I worry about people who have severe issues with empathy, or are affected by the problems of other people,” Faustino said. “Some of these people attending the group can be depressing, symptomatic, exercising poor judgment or have no boundaries. Listening to that for an hour, hour and a half can be fairly concerning for some people.”

It’s also important to note that most experts agree that a support group can’t take the place of traditional therapy for treating a diagnosable mental health condition, like mood disorders, for example.

“Some people swing by with just a support group because it provides some structure ― some form of community that traditional therapy can’t provide,” Faustino said. “But for a problem that affects daily functioning, it might not be enough. When I’m treating patients, I usually prescribe a combination of therapy and support groups, with medication if the issue is really severe.”

Of course, if you do choose to attend a support group, be ready for a lot of trial and error, which can be similar to finding a therapist. Some support groups are specific, others general; some are bigger in size, whereas others cap at a smaller number. And, of course, the practitioner can vary greatly as well.

“I think the most important thing to be aware of is to make sure that someone you can trust is running the group,” Faustino said. “I would say a warning sign, though, is anything that would apply to your normal life: If you get a bad feeling, then simply don’t go.”

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