Shoulders to Lean On: Group Therapy Offers New Perspective on Diagnosis
Denise Harrell and Jonathan Harmon are firm believers in the benefits of group therapy. The support from others who can empathize, in addition to learning new coping skills that they weave into their lives, has helped manage and improve their mental health.
Group therapy is defined by PsychCentral as psychotherapy that provides treatment in a format where there is typically one therapist and six to 12 participants with related problems. People in group therapy improve not only from the interventions of the therapist, but also from observing others in the group and receiving feedback from group members.
Behavioral Therapist Sherry “Stella” Thomson, MSW, LCSW, facilitates the group therapy sessions that Harmon and Harrell attend at Monarch’s Nash Outpatient site in Rocky Mount. Group therapy’s goal is for participants to understand their diagnosis and the medications that can manage their symptoms, and subsequently develop the skills to cope so they are able to advocate for themselves.
“Participants offer insights and experiences to help someone with an issue they are struggling with. It is cool to see people give their own input. It oftentimes is something you never thought of,” Harmon explained of his experience in group therapy sessions.
Learning Coping Skills
Harrell said she has implemented coping skills like the daily activity sheet or food journal to monitor eating habits. During a recent family vacation, she incorporated some of the coping skills she had learned through group therapy. “I used my breathing techniques and affirmations to get myself through the hard part which, for me, is the travel,” she noted.
Both Harrell and Harmon said another helpful component of group therapy is the reading that is requested in preparation for each session to offer background on the specific diagnosis.
Harmon said he appreciates that he is always learning something new through group therapy attendance and the assignments. “The assignments help you get it out of your head and onto paper and be able to think things through better.”
Harmon, who attends both the anxiety and bipolar groups, looks forward to attending the weekly group therapy sessions. “I struggled for so long with my mental health issues and to find ways to combat the negative thinking and low self-esteem. Knowing that the tools are there in group therapy is just great,” he said.
Group Therapy’s Appeal
Harrell was willing to give group therapy a try when Thomson suggested it as an alternative to individual counseling. “It helps to know that you are not the only one and people are feeling the same way you do. How do they get out of their funks when it happens to them?” she said of hearing other’s perspectives.
Harmon echoes some of Harrell’s same feelings. “It may seem weird at first because mental health is a very private thing to us but being able to go to group and soak in the realization that there are other people going through the exact same thing is comforting,” he confided.
Harrell, who attends three of the anxiety, bipolar disorder and eating disorders groups that Thomson facilitates, appreciates the support she receives: “The support system is why it works for me. That has a whole lot to do with it. We try to support each other and listen.”
“’I don’t feel alone anymore.’ These are the magic words and what I hope to hear,” said Thomson.
Thomson said it is rewarding to watch the growth when the people we support realize they can manage mental health issues. She said the connections and relationships formed through group therapy bring a new perspective to individuals receiving treatment.
“It makes me feel so happy for them that they are able to come up with some solutions and learn skills for themselves. They gain the confidence to facilitate the session themselves,” Thomson said.
Harrell wrote in a note to Thomson about her group therapy experience: “I feel stronger and more confident in my decisions for myself and my disorder. . . Group therapy for me is something I look forward to because I learn something new about me and my disorder all the time.”
Photo caption: Above right, Mindfulness Instructor Jude Johnson leads a group therapy session.