• Should Support Groups Replace Therapy?
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    Should Support Groups Replace Therapy?

    Support groups can be a great place for sharing certain aspects of life such as recovery from addiction, grief over the loss of a loved one (or pet), surviving diseases such as cancer and other life-changing circumstances. Talking with others who are experiencing similar situations can help expedite the healing process.

    Perks of a Support Group

    A support group gives the member a sense of companionship and unity when it comes to emotions surrounding their specific circumstances. A recovering cancer survivor can best help someone who is recently diagnosed because they have “been there, done that” in a way that no one else has. The same holds true for recovering addicts who can share their experiences in recovery and boost the morale of someone who is new to the process. They can easily identify with each other on an emotional and intellectual basis.

    The bridges built in support groups help members feel that they are not facing their situation alone, that others have survived and that they continue to survive the same feelings and events. There is strength in numbers.

    Where Therapy Steps In

    While the benefits of support groups are well known, there is no indication that they can serve the same purpose as therapy. The growth and support that comes from the input and counsel of a trained therapist cannot be duplicated in a support group. Emotional or mental illness can be devastating to deal with and the casual and unprofessional environment of a support group is not sufficient enough in dealing with these issues.

    Therapy is designed to be brief in nature, giving the client a safe environment to work through their emotional troubles and look at changes they can make in dysfunctional relationships or beliefs. Mentally ill clients go to therapy to understand their illness as well as learn coping and behavioral skills to help them function more appropriately in the world. Once they are more stable, they may then be referred to a support group.

    How They Work Together

    Someone who has been diagnosed and treated with a personality or emotional problem may be asked to attend a support group for additional help in stabilizing their ability to live and function in the world. Support groups are a great adjunct for therapy but seldom a viable replacement. Those with serious problems need to become stable in therapy before they are ready to be placed in a setting that is as social as a support group.

    Even those with addictions will often seek treatment from professionals before they are stable enough in their recovery to attend support groups. While they are great places for normalizing needed recovery options and maintaining a balanced life without addiction, these groups are not necessarily the place for an addict to get deeper emotional help. The same holds true for grief support groups, cancer support groups or any other groups supporting those with emotional issues.

    The Main Differences

    Therapy is beneficial to all who need to deal with a crisis presented to them, whether it is hitting a bottom with drugs/alcohol, being diagnosed with a mental illness, losing a loved one or coming to terms with serious physical conditions. The first step is to deal with the immediate response to these issues. A therapist will work with their client until they are sure he or she is stable enough to step into a less formal mode of therapy. While there, the client can work through personal issues that may not be appropriate for a support group.

    By nature, support groups are a communal entity. Few of them have professional intervention. At best, they are all members who are dealing with the same issues. Those that are designed for addiction such as 12-step recovery groups have no professional leaders. The only authorized “pros” are those with long-term recovery but even then they are not in the group to give advice. These individuals, often referred to as sponsors, are there to support their own recovery as well as act as private advisors outside of the group setting.

    Some support groups are more formally set up to provide a professional leader and lean more towards “group therapy” in nature. Usually these are the grief processing groups, cancer support groups, etc. There, fellow members frequently intervene when they see each other get off track emotionally. Even so, their involvement should not be seen at the same level of expertise as therapy.


    Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.

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