Are you looking for support outside of therapy? Can online discussions between peers or a support group replace therapy with a trained professional psychotherapist or psychologist? Continue reading to learn more about the difference between support groups and therapy
What is a Support Group?
Support groups are helpful for times when you must cope with events or situations you cannot change. Support groups are best for handling issues, situations, and challenges that you are not equipped to change. Support groups may also be a way for you to learn more about an issue you are facing and learn about what resources are available to help you and your family. For example, you cannot change the fact that you have a child with a life-threatening illness or that you’re going through a divorce or that you’ve lost a loved one or you have a family member who is struggling with an addiction. What you can change, through your participation in a support group, is how well you cope with these struggles.
Support groups bring together people who are going through or have gone through similar experiences. Whether they are online discussion groups or in-person groups, they can be a helpful way for you to get support, educate yourself, and reduce the feeling of isolation when you are facing a challenging experience. Online discussion groups or in-person support groups can address any issues ranging from dealing with a major health challenge, parental estrangement, raising children, coping with an addiction or even gender or sexual orientation issues. Support groups can also give you additional support in between your counselling sessions.
What is Therapy?
Psychotherapy or therapy refers to a range of treatments that can help with mental health issues, emotional challenges, and some psychiatric disorders. It aims to enable you to better understand your feelings, manage your emotions, learn more about yourself, your spouse, your child or your family, and make choices that can improve your situation, perspective, family dynamics or behaviours. A psychotherapist may be a psychologist, a marriage and family therapist, a social worker, or a psychotherapist. Each therapist should be registered with their respective provincial college.
Individual therapy is focused solely on you and looks at how you can change. For instance, couples therapy looks at your interactions as a couple and can be used as a marriage tune up, helping the two of you cope with your differences, and provide support after one partner has engaged in an affair outside of the relationship. Youth therapy helps teens and emerging young adults manage the challenges they may experience as they transition into adulthood, growing up and dealing with more complex issues.
When to Use an Online or In-Person Support Group versus Psychotherapy?
Each one has its place in helping you through challenging situations.
There are big differences between a peer support group and a trained psychotherapist:
- Training – your therapist should have a master’s degree in psychotherapy, social worker, psychology, counselling, or master of education degree
- A therapist is dedicated to only you, your child, your family or you and your partner as a couple
- Unbiased information
- Accountability for both you and your therapist
- A peer support group does not necessarily protect your privacy as there are many people in the group
Psychotherapy has the benefit of giving you, your partner or your child someone to talk to. It can create a new way of looking at difficult problems, and help you move towards a solution. Therapy helps you get a better understanding of yourself, your goals and values, and can help you develop skills for improving your relationships with others. In order for psychotherapy to work, you need to be engaged and participate in the process. In a support group, one can remain a listener without engaging in any personal work or improvement. On the other hand, therapy is not a passive process. You need to talk in each session, and you might need to do homework or activities to help you overcome your challenges.
Individuals seek psychotherapy when they are facing challenges such as depression, anxiety, phobias, problems raising their children, or couples’ issues. Some therapists work with people after they have been involved in a motor vehicle accident and have developed phobias related to driving.
There are a number of effective types of psychotherapy. Some more well-known therapy techniques are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Exposure Therapy or Emotional Focused Therapy for Couples. Your therapist may use a combination of many different techniques and therapy modalities to find what best works for you.
Peer Support Group or Online Support Groups
A peer support group may be led by a layperson who does not have any specialized training. A support group can be a place to learn and hear about the issue you are struggling with, but it doesn’t replace the intense work you need to do to resolve your issues. A peer support group can also help you if you are living with medical issues or even provide guidance and support for life’s challenges such as having twins or a special needs child or need some general support to deal with your teens or an addiction issue outside of therapy.
The goal of a support group is to help you cope. Support groups are for times when you realize your inherent coping skills are not enough to help you through a current difficulty in your life and you need more support than your friends and family can provide. Having a supportive environment in which to talk about what you’re going through can greatly increase your chances of having a better outcome than someone who doesn’t receive any support. Some people join online or in-person support groups but do not really participate, and that’s OK. Sometimes you may just want to listen to others.
When you are on social media, you do not always know if each person has your best interest at heart or if they are unbiased. In our experience, we have seen some mean parent-bashing or even suggestions that it’s time to leave your spouse when someone looks for support or asks questions on social media. This isn’t therapy; it is merely a support group offering opinions.
Benefits of a Peer Support Group
There are many peer support groups online to help people go through similar situations. There is no denying that there are benefits to speaking with others going through a similar experience. Here’s how it can help:
- Reduces social isolation
- Garners support from others in a similar situation
- Provides information and education
- Helps to stay motivated to manage chronic conditions
- Aids in gaining a sense of empowerment, control or hope
- Improves understanding of a disease and your own experience with it
- Receive practical feedback about treatment options
- Learn about health, economic or social resources
- May develop friendships
- Allows flexibility—not mandated to attend every week. You can start and stop, you can also silently observe.
An effective support group will hopefully also provide you with information, tips or other resources. In a support group, you may develop friendships and relationships outside of the group. A support group does not mandate that you must attend weekly or make some form of commitment.
When Would You Recommend Someone Join an Online Support Group and Share their Own Experiences Online?
Online and peer support groups can be helpful:
- If you are in a very isolated community,
- You’re not quite ready to take the leap into individual therapy,
- You can’t get out of your home due to illness or mobility issues,
- You are not ready to share your struggles in-person.
It’s important to ask a few questions before joining a support group:
- Is the group designed for people with a specific medical condition or certain stage of a disease?
- Is there a facilitator or moderator?
- Has the facilitator undergone training?
- Is a mental health expert involved with the group?
- What are the guidelines for confidentiality?
- Are there established ground rules for group participation?
- What is a typical meeting like?
- Is it free, and if not, what are the fees?
Red flags that might indicate a problematic support group include:
- Promises of a sure cure for your disease or condition,
- High fees to attend the group,
- Pressure to purchase products or services.
What Are the Dangers of Only Relying On Social Media Or Peer Support Groups to Help You Work Through An Issue?
Alongside the benefits of using social media or support groups, it is important to be cognizant of the possible downside:
- There is no accountability if it is just an online group created by individuals who are not registered psychotherapists or who are not affiliated with a reputable organization or group.
- Support groups are just that – support – and if things go very wrong in your life, your group will have no idea why you disappeared or no way to reach out to you to offer support.
- Support groups may not be led by a trained and certified psychotherapist.
- There are many support groups, and some may be biased more towards one point of view.
- Again, a support group isn’t therapy.
- You may feel you are not getting enough empathy or support from your support group because the membership can vary every time you go online.
- If you are easily impacted by the emotions of others, online support groups might not be the right thing for you.
- The group may turn into mere complaining sessions if it’s not well monitored
- Emotional entanglement, group tension or interpersonal conflicts
- Inappropriate or unsound medical advice
- Comparisons of whose condition or experience is worse
Do You Recommend People Post About their Own Experiences Online?
Sharing your experiences does make you feel connected to others. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of confidentiality on social media or a public or even private support group that interacts online. Members of all support groups are not supposed to share details outside of the group.
When online it is important that you create a profile, which will not give away your identity. You may also wish to change some of the details of your experiences such as places or dates.
If you are going to an in-person or community support group, talk with the facilitator about confidentiality before attending. Confidentiality and the importance of privacy should be discussed prior to you joining a group.