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Therapy isn't always you, a couch, and a therapist. Group therapy offers some unique benefits to depressed patients that you won't get in individual sessions. What do you need to know?

In the US alone, 17.3 million people — give or take — will suffer from depression annually, making it one of the most common mental health struggles around. While you're in the middle of it, it may seem like you'll never feel any different, and depression is here to stay. That's not true, though. In fact, research reveals that even the most severe depression is treatable, and eight in 10 of those who start an evidence-based treatment begin to feel better within a month to six weeks

Therapy, antidepressants, or a combination of both are the first-line approaches to this treatment. But therapy doesn't always mean it's just you and a psychologist or psychiatrist in the room. Group therapy is a very viable approach to treating depression. What are the seven ways in which it may benefit you if you suffer from depression?

What is group therapy?

Upon hearing the word "psychotherapy", chances are quite high that the uninitiated will vaguely picture the idea of lying on a couch to talk to a psychologist, psychoanalysis-style, on a one-on-one basis. That kind of therapy exists, but it's not the only kind out there. Group therapy, is, obviously, therapy in a group — but what else do you need to know about it?

  • Group therapy sessions can be led by one psychologist, but also several. 
  • It generally takes place in small-ish groups of up to 15 people facing similar struggles as you are. 
  • Sessions are generally weekly, and they often last an hour or two, though some may take longer.
  • While group therapy is the sole kind of therapy they attend for some people, others combine individual sessions with group sessions. Talk to your doctor to decide what approach is right for you.
  • Some therapy groups are "open" — meaning you can join and start anytime — while others are closed and have a wait list. 
  • Many different kinds of therapy can be conducted in a group setting. These include interpersonal therapy (which focuses on relationships with others), cognitive behavioral therapy (which focuses on changing thought patterns), and modified dynamic group therapy, which is often suitable for people with substance abuse problems. 

Can group therapy help you overcome depression? In what ways?

Yes, group therapy can play an important role in helping people overcome major depressive disorder. One study showed that 57 percent of depressed patients attending group therapy had an improvement in symptoms while 40 percent recovered from depression. Other studies reveal, unsurprisingly, that group therapy is much, much, better than not receiving any treatment for depression at all, while it's not clear whether group therapy leads to better or worse outcomes than individual therapy. What is clear, however, is that group therapy has some benefits that one-on-one sessions with a single therapist doesn't.

What can group therapy offer that individual therapy cannot? Let's take a look:

  1. Social withdrawal is one of the hallmarks of depression. Group therapy attendance creates a routine in which you are regularly in touch with other people, something that can itself play a role in your recovery process. Over time, your therapy group can even become a trusted part of your support network. 
  2. Therapy groups for depression are made up of a whole group of depressed people. Some will be mildly depressed while others suffer from more severe depression. Some people will be new, like you'll be, while others have already been in treatment for a while and are beginning to recover from their depression. The other members will understand what you are going through from first-hand experience, rather than second-hand experience and textbook knowledge as is often the case with therapists. This means you can reasonably expect to hear practical tips that will help you, too. 
  3. Besides useful tips, you will also hear about other people's struggles. This can help you make sense of your own. 
  4. Unlike support groups for depression, which also have an important role to play in depression treatment for some people, however, therapy groups have the additional benefit that they are conducted under the professional guidance of qualified psychologists. This means that you'll be working toward goals in ways backed up by science. 
  5. The fact that group therapy is a setting in which you'll encounter multiple very different people with very different backgrounds means you'll hear about different ways to deal with the struggles you are facing, and you may gain insights and perspectives you wouldn't have access to in individual therapy
  6. The whole therapy session won't be focused on you. This can be of particular benefit to people who want to start treatment for depression but aren't yet sure how to share or "do" therapy. You will learn techniques and start your journey toward recovery without necessarily having to say an awful lot at first. 
  7. Group therapy is also typically cheaper than individual therapy, which, for some people, will mean greater access. 

In conclusion

Group therapy has been shown to be an effective approach to treating major depressive disorder. It may be for you even if you also attend individual therapy, and regardless of whether you are on antidepressants too. Because group therapy has some benefits that one-on-one sessions do not, it is something every depressed patient who has access to it should at least seriously consider.

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