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I Attend Group Therapy… And You Could, Too

This is my fourth consecutive semester participating in group therapy through University Counseling Service here at Iowa and I couldn’t be more grateful for all of the ways it has helped me. A lot of people are skeptical or even afraid of group therapy, so I wanted to talk about why it’s not a bad idea to consider it as part of your mental health treatment plan.

At UCS, therapy groups meet once a week for an hour and a half. Some groups target a particular demographic – men, women, people with eating disorders, et cetera. Others are more general. (Although I initially thought about joining an all-women group, I have ultimately always participated in a general group and there have been no problems so far.)

Group therapy is free, as is individual and couples’ counseling through UCS. It is also indefinite, unlike individual counseling, which has limited sessions to help UCS staff handle the immense volume of clients. Most groups meet for nearly the entire semester, but a few are much shorter– like three weeks!

Each group consists of four to eight students and one or two therapists. While I’ve heard that other groups run things somewhat differently, my group sessions have always gone as follows:

  • Check-in. Everyone updates the other group members on what’s going on in their life, how they’re feeling and so on.
  • Time. We can “ask for time” as part of check-in, which just means that there’s something on our mind that requires advice or support. While time isn’t mandatory, if you haven’t asked for some in a while you’ll definitely be encouraged to do so. This makes up the bulk of therapy. We get to know a lot about each other and ourselves!
  • Check-out. At the end of each session, we quickly discuss how group went that day. This is also the time when we announce any goals we have for the week ahead.

The biggest rule of group therapy is confidentiality. We’re not allowed to give out the names of the other people in our group. If we’re trying to help a friend and want to use a situation in group as an example, we have to be sure not to mention any identifying details. So we keep it vague, like “this girl I know was also struggling to make it to class due to depression and here is what she did.”

Group therapy is not scary. Believe me, I had my doubts about it too. It’s absolutely possible that group therapy isn’t right for you, but you won’t know until you try. At the first group meeting everyone commits to attend at least a certain number of sessions to see if they like it. We get to choose that number, so my first time I wrote down four, meaning that I’d have to stick it out for at least a month before deciding whether or not to quit. Now I commit to attending as many sessions as possible, only missing them when I’m sick!

Group therapy is also not like how it is in the movies or on TV. Yes, sometimes someone starts crying– but more often than not, we make each other laugh. And no, it’s not a pathetic attempt to force people to be friends with you; we actually aren’t allowed to interact with each other outside of group sessions in order to maintain confidentiality. We do bond with each other, though. I’ve been in the same group as some people for two years now and it’s incredible to see the progress we’ve all made in that time. (As a matter of fact, now that some are graduating, I’m going to ask for their social media handles because I know I’ll miss them! Plus, I want to see what they get up to after undergrad.)

While I like the focus of an individual therapy appointment, those fifty minutes of one-on-one time with a therapist can definitely be intimidating if you don’t know what to say or where to even start. Group therapy is great because someone else might open up first or help you find the right words to describe what you’re going through.

I’m not your therapist. I’m not your doctor, either. But I hope I’ve convinced you to give group therapy a second thought. Maybe I’ve even put it on your radar for the first time. I can’t tell you what to do, but just consider this a little friendly peer pressure: group therapy has the potential to help out in some very big ways. So why not try it?  

[All images stock photography]

Elizabeth Chesak is a junior at the University of Iowa. She is triple-majoring in English & Creative Writing, Journalism, and Gender, Women’s, & Sexuality Studies to prepare for her hybrid dream job of picture book author/National Geographic photojournalist/activist. When not in class, studying, or sleeping, she can usually be found befriending the neighborhood cats.
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