Why I love group work

When I first began my MSW program I had a practicum at a men’s addiction recovery program where I led many groups.  I found this is where I shone.  I loved to engage the variety of people, to come up with interesting questions to spark conversation, to observe the intergroup interactions and the roles people take on.  I loved the way profound insight from one person could impact another in the group. 

Group work takes many forms.  The most commonly led group today by therapists and social workers is the psycho-educational group, although peer-led self-help groups may be the most widely practiced within society.  Psychoeducational groups usually balance a mix of education on a particular disorder or method of coping with therapeutic processing.

People often wonder about the efficacy and therapeutic value of groups.  In many studies they have been found as useful as individual therapy for certain conditions.  I have read Irvin Yalom’s The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy http://www.yalom.com/pagemaker.php?nav=tap&subframe=summary and have found it fascinating.  It is a good book to start with if you are interested in developing a foundation in group work.  Some of what I say will be drawn from this book and social work courses I have taken on groups.

Group therapy can allow modelling and re-enacting of relationships in a safe environment that allows learning.  Take someone who is struggling with interpersonal dynamics with others – his negative thinking  or aggressive tendencies may be observed by himself and others and processed: new interaction patterns can be formed.

In groups people are not only being treated but are contributing to the treatment of others- there is a co-operation of sorts, mutual healing that doe snot come from a hallowed/wise person (a therapist) but comes from the collective insight and weaknesses of those in the group.

It provides engagement and social support to those who usually immediately withdrawn.

It is a purposeful social engagement different from being a group of people at a party-there is learning to be had even if a person does not speak up a lot in group.

It helps people get out of their shells and feeling as if they are the only person in the world to feel a certain way, there is comfort, as well as perhaps, disappointment that their symptoms are not what makes them unique that they have to rediscover that part of them.

There is encouragement as well as motivation in seeing others gain insight and becoming more engaged and more well.

No doubt there are challenges in groups such as : confidentiality, conflict, scapegoating, monopolizing, silence, tangential thoughts, etc.  But if you are person who loves groups these are part of the challenges.

What strikes me about groups is that meeting together in groups is an essential blueprint of church life.  Many churches, like my own, have small groups that meet together.  There is no doubt that these groups, too, have great power for healing although they are markedly different in their purpose from therapy groups.  I wonder what group therapy can learn from small groups and vice-versa?  What characteristics do they share?

I am not trying to imply that church is therapy nor should be therapy.  Our goal in small groups is mutually loving one another, and discipling one another rather than learning about how to cope better in life with a certain condition. 

However, as I’ve said in the past, in my church approximately half of our members struggle with mental illness and/or addiction.  Sometimes it happens that in order for growth in Christ to happen, we may need to learn how to cope with mental illness or addiction, often with the help of therapy. 

There are many christian resources that try to help people deal with the wounds of their past from a Christ-centred way.  One of these I’ve heard of is Redemption groups which are modelled after Biblical counselling. http://redemptiongroups.com/what-is-a-redemption-group/ and originate from Mars Hill church.  I have never been engaged in such a group but for some time I have wondered about having a kind of group that addresses such issues within our faith community.  It is an interesting example as it tends to borrow some therapeutic principles while being firmly planted in the church and thus separate from therapy.

What do you think?  Have you ever led group work?  What do you like or dislike about it?

Have you engaged in groups in your church or faith-based organization?  How do the principles or processes overlap?  How are they distinctly different?