Group Therapy: Pandemic Style
Speaking as a counselor, there is no doubt that the COVID pandemic has changed the field of mental health. Most of us are now offering Telehealth appointments, also called remote counseling, distance counseling, and virtual counseling.
Prior to this year, I had very rarely seen clients remotely, and I was anxious about how this change would impact our ability to connect in a meaningful way. I was very pleasantly surprised at how raw and authentic distance counseling continues to be. But what about group therapy sessions. How does distance counseling work for group therapy?
Group therapy is more necessary than ever.
Prior to the pandemic, virtual therapy groups were nearly impossible to find. Now, however, in the world of social distancing and increased stress, many people are finding that they need the support and camaraderie of a group more than ever before. It became clear to many of us that we would need to find a way to offer groups, even in the midst of a pandemic.
This shift in group delivery has come with unique challenges-- but they are challenges that I believe can be successfully managed.
Making online group therapy work
There are certainly some barriers to offering group counseling online. For example, clear communication about turn-taking becomes much more important when we don't have the visual cues we usually rely on when we sit in a room with others. The counselor's job to is to be aware of this and to facilitate the discussion in a way that includes everyone. Agreeing on etiquette at the beginning is important.
Another consideration is privacy. When group sessions are held in-person, it is the counselor's responsibility to make sure that there is a room available for the therapy group that is comfortable, private, and free of distractions. With virtual group therapy, this becomes the responsibility of each individual member. Again, this is an important topic that should be discussed at the beginning of a group when agreeing on etiquette.
The final consideration that often gets brought up is: How well can a group truly connect when the groups are held remotely? My simple answer to that is: A lot better than they could if the groups weren't held at all! It is a valid question, though, and a legitimate concern. There is definitely something to be said for leaving your house and traveling to a new physical environment that you are sharing with others. There is a shared energy that emerges when you come together in this new space.
I have certain preferences for holding online groups that I think help to foster that shared energy remotely. The first relates to group size--I prefer that online groups are smaller than in-person groups so each person can be clearly seen. I also ask group members to all use the equivalent of gallery-view, so that we can all see each other all the time. This means that when one group member is talking, they are able to see the reactions of others-- something as simple as seeing someone else nodding goes a long way to helping us feel safe and accepted when sharing with others.
Creating and maintaining meaningful connections remotely is something that I think almost all of us have been faced with over this last year. In group therapy, that happens in an intentional, structured way as member share and heal alongside one another.
(If you are wondering which would be better for you, individual therapy or group therapy, I have written more about the differences here.)
For those of you located in Oregon, I do offer group counseling in addition to individual counseling. You can learn more about the groups I offer here. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about either group or individual therapy.
Miranda Featherstone is a mental health counselor based in Salem, Oregon. She writes about navigating changes, the experience of grief, and the embracing the benefits of creativity and engagement with nature. Those living in Oregon who are interested in counseling are encouraged to reach out through her website.