Healthy Mind

Virtual Therapy Doesn’t Have To Be a Solo Mission—Here’s How New Group-Based Options Can Help

Erica Sloan

W+G Creative
If you’ve ever opened up to a friend about a challenge or struggle that you're navigating through only to learn they're in a similar boat, you already know how powerful it can be to connect with someone who can relate. Simply hearing another person's reassurance that comes from a place of experience can function as a therapeutic salve, allowing you to feel more comfortable expressing yourself and to grow as a result. Empathic connection like this is the bedrock of group therapy and group support, both of which are resources that more folks can access now than ever, thanks to a slate of new online versions.

Over the past two years, as individual telemedicine offerings have expanded, so, too, have virtual offerings for both group therapy and facilitator-led group support. And these online options couldn’t be more timely, given the unique paradox presented by the pandemic. “What happened was, on the one hand, COVID suddenly made it unsafe to meet in person, and on the other hand, it accelerated the need for social connection because of the isolation that it generated for many, many people,” says psychotherapist Molyn Leszcz, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and president of the American Group Psychotherapy Association.

For more intel on the rise of virtual therapy, listen to this episode of The Well+Good Podcast:

While new online group-therapy platforms surely help to satiate that need for connection, they're also expanding access, in general, to mental-health resources—which has become increasingly necessary as of late. A survey of nearly 1,800 psychologists released by the American Psychological Association in November 2020 found that 74 percent of them reported seeing more patients for anxiety and 60 percent reported seeing more for depression than they did pre-pandemic.

How group-based approaches can lower the barrier to entry for mental-health support

There’s a whole host of reasons why someone who could benefit from therapy might not actually see a therapist, including the price tag of therapy, a lack of access to nearby therapists, and the stigma associated with seeking treatment. And both online group therapy and facilitator-led group support can help mitigate all of the above: They're lower in cost than individual sessions and accessible from a person’s home, which means they require less time and energy to participate.

Notably, however, group therapy and facilitator-led group support aren't quite identical. While the first involves a therapist supporting participants in the treatment of a condition like, say, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (and thus requires the participants to Zoom in from the state where the therapist is licensed), the second features a mental-health practitioner who leads a supportive discussion, but does not treat a particular condition (and as a result, anyone can join from wherever). But, while technically different, both offerings being on the rise is great for the many people who stand to benefit.

“When you’re in a group, it reduces the mental load. You finally feel like you can talk to people who really get what you’re going through.” —Jonathan Spievack, founder and CEO of Grouport

In both group therapy and group support, the group dynamic itself can de-stigmatize seeking help, since anyone joining knows they’ll be surrounded by folks confronting similar issues. “When someone who’s been dealing with a particular life challenge has been thinking the same thoughts and having the same sensations for a while, it can feel really isolating,” says Jonathan Spievack, founder and CEO of Grouport, a New York-based group-therapy platform that launched in July 2020 and has since grown 10-fold and raised a $1.5 million series seed round in September. “When you’re in a group, it reduces the mental load. You finally feel like you can talk to people who really get what you’re going through,” he says.

The simple fact that you won’t have to do all the talking in a group-based setting can also make it more appealing for someone who’s, well, less of a talker—like Cat Lee, who founded the facilitator-led support company Pace in June 2020 (which now has more than 100 groups) after experiencing both relief from stress and personal growth through being vulnerable with loved ones. “I find that I can get as much benefit listening to other people share similar thoughts and feelings as my own and hearing their perspectives as I can from sharing my own thoughts with my therapist one-on-one,” she says.

Because that type of connection is more akin to casual conversation than it is to a therapy session, there’s something less intimidating about it for many people, too. “People are starting to understand that they don’t have to have depression or anxiety to need support,” says psychologist Vivian Oberling, PsyD, director of the founding team at Pace. “We all have varying levels of stress throughout the day that we can or can’t handle by ourselves. And the group sessions are just about maintaining a level of support that’s as much a part of your well-being as regularly going to the doctor for a check-up.”

While both Grouport and Pace require a commitment of a few weeks to participate, Sesh, an online group-therapy platform that launched in March 2020, has a drop-in approach—which can boost access even further. You’d simply log on, find a group that feels like a match, and request entry, after which you’d have a short intake session with a licensed facilitator who would guide you in the right direction (or steer you toward other resources if group support didn’t seem like a fit). “Because there’s no expectation of continuity, anyone can feel like they’re able to receive support for any issue whenever they need it,” says therapist Kruti Quazi, LPC, clinical director at Sesh.

With so many companies now offering their own take on group therapy and support options, it's increasingly possible for all folks to find a setup that works for them. Other recent launches include Real, which started virtual mental-health “salons” in March 2020; Hims & Hers, which expanded its telehealth offerings into mental health with online support groups in April 2020; and group-support company Circles, which launched in August 2020, and has seen 300-percent growth in the past year alone in terms of usage, according to Circles Chief Marketing Officer Neta Gull.

A number of existing therapy practices have also pivoted their offerings to include online group-therapy services, and have launched additional groups that anyone who lives in their respective states can access. (Some examples include Deep Eddy Psychotherapy, in Texas; Riverside Community Care, in Massachusetts; and Sean Grover’s private therapy practice in New York.)

The upsides of online group therapy and support (and where it falls short)

While we may have initially cozied up to virtual platforms during the pandemic out of sheer necessity—embracing video-conferencing for everything from school to work to workouts—it’s these platforms we can now thank for giving group therapy the boost it’s long deserved. For years pre-pandemic, the benefits of group therapy, in general, had been widely established, but due to the logistical hurdles involved in gathering a group of people in a physical location, the vast majority of therapists simply didn’t offer it, says CEO of Sesh Vittoria Bergeron.

Case in point: Before joining Grouport, psychologist Naomi Bernstein, PsyD, had tried a few times to set up her own therapy group for folks handling relationship issues, but found it too difficult to start it from scratch, find a location, and pick a time that worked for everyone. “Having an online platform to streamline and organize that process was really needed, from both the patient and therapist end,” she says.

“In-person groups can sometimes activate greater social anxiety than a Zoom meeting might.” —Kyler Shumway, PsyD

Along with increasing access, virtual platforms can also enhance the therapeutic experience of group support. “Beyond mere convenience, the safety piece of being in a virtual meeting can be particularly salient,” says Kyler Shumway, PsyD, CEO of Deep Eddy Psychotherapy. “In-person groups can sometimes activate greater social anxiety than a Zoom meeting might,” he says.

While facilitators do lose some non-verbal communication cues when they meet with group members in a virtual setting, that just requires them to be more deliberate about promoting engagement and interaction, says Dr. Leszcz. As an example, he shares what happened when a person in one of his virtual groups said that they wished they could hug another participant. “I said to them, ‘You're expressing an enormous amount of emotion about this person. Since you can’t physically be with them, I'm going to ask you to articulate everything that you're feeling.’" In that way, the group member was pushed to find words for a feeling that might normally be shown only through action—and, perhaps, express it even more clearly as a result.

Of course, that doesn’t counteract the potential for a technological snag to cut someone off mid-sentence during a session, or for someone to accidentally interrupt someone else due to a lag in the video. Those are just a couple of drawbacks to virtual connection that facilitators leading online group therapy or support sessions have to be that much more keen to circumvent.

Even so, the broader therapeutic benefit of finding common ground is something that all the experts say is worth the technological risk. “Sometimes, what keeps you stuck even more so than the symptoms of a condition is the shame you carry along with it,” says Dr. Bernstein. “Seeing that there are not only other people, but other funny people, other kind people, other smart people, other highly functioning people who have the same diagnosis or the same struggles as you do can really help you feel like, ‘Okay, I can also be funny and kind and smart and high-functioning, and be dealing with this, too.’”

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