Reviewed by Dr. Carolyn Litteral, LPC-S, LCDC, MAC
At first glance, the differences between individual and group therapy may seem apparent. In individual therapy, you typically meet with a therapist one-on-one, while in group therapy, you meet with a group of peers who have similar mental health challenges.
However, each style of therapy offers unique benefits, serves unique purposes, and can provide different levels of support and depth for your recovery process.
The Origins of Individual Therapy
Individual therapy has a longer history than group therapy; the origins of talk therapy date back to ancient Greece. Later, in the 1850s, Walter Cooper Dendy coined the term “psycho-therapeia” to describe a talk therapy approach. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung further developed the approach into what we now recognize as modern psychotherapy during the late 1890s.
Freud was a neurologist who focused on assisting patients with psychological disorders. But in his private practice, he suggested that talking with people often produced greater results than his medical interventions ever could.
Freud believed that an individual’s unconscious mind had an immense influence on people’s moods and behaviors. Freud developed a form of talk therapy known as psychoanalysis, which helped people understand unconscious influences and subsequently work to change them.
The “talking cure” quickly saw widespread adaptation as a treatment for mental illness. Clinicians and researchers have refined the effective elements of talk therapy into a number of therapeutic techniques using rigorous scientific testing and research. Some of the evidence-based methods for individual therapy include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT)
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Evidence-based individual therapy can treat a wide range of mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, and more.
One of the important aspects of evidence-based methods is that they can help people achieve a greater quality of life, reach their goals, overcome roadblocks on the path to recovery, and learn how to better process their emotions and impulses.
Origins of Group Therapy
Group therapy rose in popularity at the end of World War II when understaffed military hospitals adopted a group treatment approach to address unexpectedly large numbers of veterans needing psychiatric support. Initially, group therapy was considered an alternative to individual therapy as a means of lowering costs for larger groups of people. Group therapy provided similar guidance and support as individual therapy while meeting the demand of populations unable to pay for mental health services.
Group therapists quickly discovered that group therapy produced significant results in areas that differed from individual sessions. Group therapy participants engaged in a powerful process that brought several unique benefits to clients struggling to overcome mental health challenges.
Today, leading a group therapy session is unique and differs from individual therapy in many ways. There are specific trainings, education, and tools that group therapists use that differentiate the process from individual therapy, though some of the same basic principles are applied in individual and group therapy settings.
Individual and Group Therapy Benefits and Differences
Individual and group therapy both offer unique benefits. The following section breaks down the differences between each type of therapy and what you can expect from treatment.
Individual Therapy Benefits
A strength of individual therapy is that it can provide a personalized, in-depth therapeutic session. Working one-on-one with a clinician allows you to dive deep into your unique challenges, explore the causes of your struggles, and explore your symptoms and diagnoses in great detail.
Additionally, an individual therapy session doesn’t have to be focused on a single problem. In group therapy, it is common for the group composition to be focused on a shared challenge, such as living with a substance use disorder. Straying from the topic at hand may be discouraged, as one of the benefits of group therapy is sharing a common goal and struggle.
Individual therapy allows for more freedom to discuss and process whatever matters are pertinent to you, and provides the flexibility to work on multiple issues.
Another key benefit of individual therapy is the individualized support and direct attention to your needs. This format allows space for your therapist to notice subtle cues or physical reactions that might be missed in a group session, which can accelerate the process of your recovery.
Group Therapy Benefits
Group therapy’s primary benefit comes from the “group think.” While a group therapy session is usually facilitated by a licensed mental health professional, group members are encouraged to share their experiences with a particular challenge, give feedback to one another, and provide support to their peers when appropriate. Typically, the group members also collaborate to set rules for the group.
The support and accountability from peers within a group regarding a shared dilemma can be incredibly powerful.
Sometimes, you simply need to connect to others in a similar situation to feel a sense of belonging. Group therapy provides this support and can be tremendously beneficial for people living with any number of mental health challenges.
For example, a person living with a substance use disorder may feel like their individual therapist doesn’t understand the experience of withdrawals or have cravings when seeing advertisements for alcohol. Other people who are in substance use recovery have been in the same position and may be able to provide useful advice and compassionate support.
But group therapy provides another essential benefit — proof that recovery is possible. Most therapy groups have clients with a wide range of experiences with the shared mental health challenge, including those who have been in recovery for some time, as well as those attending their very first therapy group. This experience alone provides evidence that people can achieve recovery and can help build motivation for new clients.
Different Types of Group Therapy
Since group therapy tends to be focused on a single problem, there are different types of group therapy aimed at various purposes. This includes groups for specific mental health disorders — such as depression groups, PTSD groups, or addiction groups — and it also refers to different purposes.
For example, there are group interventions focused on:
- Therapeutic interventions
- Educational groups
- Developmental groups
- Preventive groups
- Skills training groups
By offering several different styles of groups, group therapy aims to broaden its scope to more than a single issue, though it would require attending multiple group therapy sessions.
Which Style of Therapy is Right for You?
Now that you understand the benefits and differences between individual and group therapy, you may be wondering which type of therapy you should choose. The short answer is that it depends — multiple factors may influence where you’ll receive the greatest benefit.
For deeply personal issues, relationship problems, or help for treatment with unique circumstances, individual therapy may be the better choice. Working one-on-one with a therapist can help you delve into details that may seem insignificant in a group session.
For mental health challenges that impact a large number of people, such as addiction, depression, or PTSD, many people find more lasting results from group therapy. The bonds you can form in these groups often last a lifetime and provide ongoing support and accountability for your recovery.
But in most cases, the fastest way to recovery is to choose both individual and group therapy. This choice provides a healthy balance of in-depth work with your individual therapist and ongoing support and accountability from a peer-focused group.
A combination of individual and group therapy is often the approach used at residential or outpatient mental health treatment centers, as combining both individual and group therapy often provides the best recovery outcomes.
Can I Combine Individual and Group Therapy with Other Treatments?
Although both individual and group therapy can be incredibly effective at helping people achieve recovery from a mental health disorder, they can often have an even greater effect when combined with other types of mental health interventions.
For instance, research has shown that people who take psychiatric medication in conjunction with therapy will typically show a much greater reduction in symptoms than either treatment alone.
But new, innovative treatments for mental health can be used in tandem with therapy as well. These treatments include novel methods such as:
- Ketamine-assisted therapy
- Stellate ganglion blocks
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy
- Deep transcranial magnetic stimulation
- Quantitative electroencephalography brain mapping
Many of these new styles of mental health treatment have the potential to provide faster results and be the boost you need to achieve a lasting recovery. Often, these treatments work for people who have tried traditional treatments without success.
If you’d like to learn more about individual and group therapy, as well as complementary treatment methods that can help you achieve a lasting recovery, please contact Plus by APN to learn more about our comprehensive treatment programs.
- Ezhumalai, Sinu et al. “Group interventions.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 60,Suppl 4 (2018): S514-S521. doi:10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_42_18
- Khan, Arif et al. “A systematic review of comparative efficacy of treatments and controls for depression.” PloS one vol. 7,7 (2012): e41778. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041778