Article – Make Them Sit Down In Groups

Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse

The Transforming Power Of Group Therapy

Published in the Association of Christian Counsellors Magazine
Spring 2004

Jesus gave an interesting instruction to the disciples as they were dividing up the bread and fish during the feeding of the five thousand “Make them sit down in groups” (Luke 9 v14). Was Jesus simply making it easier for everyone to feast on their miraculous take away or was there something more to his words?

Groups whatever and whomever they represent are places where the whole range of human emotions are experienced. A point not lost on reality TV Producers “Big Brother” Executive Producer Gigi Eligoloff who last year promised that the 2003 series would “focus much more on group dynamics this year..” as “it was the relationships between the twelve contestants that made it compulsive viewing”.

However, a far more constructive use of group dynamics though is through group therapy. Group therapy in the UK in the last thirty years has become one of the NHS’s most powerful and cost effective treatments for a whole range of difficulties from anger management to eating problems to anxiety and self esteem. Research also shows that it can help people with more serious psychiatric problems. Dr Marco Chisea a Consultant Psychiatrist at Cassell Hospital in Surrey reported in 2001 twice weekly group therapy:

  • Reduces average hospital stay from 1 year to 6 months.
  • Reduced re-admission by 80%.
  • Reduced the number of patients harming themselves fell from 55% in the year before admission to 15% afterwards.

So why do groups help in ways that one to one therapy may not? To understand this we have to look to the beginnings of group therapy.

Group therapy has its origins in the Second World War where two therapists Foulkes and Bion developed the idea that to treat soldiers with war related neurological disorders their shared experience of being in a war would enable them to help one another. It’s this principle (that Foulkes was particularly aware of) of entering the shared experience that is still the driving force behind the therapy to this day.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alcoholics Anonymous and the other 12 Step Programmes also based in the group recovery structure are founded on a principle of common ground bringing empathy which results in growth and strength. Bill Wilson one of the Co-Founders of AA said “Because of the kinship of our suffering our channels of contact have been charged with the language of the heart”. John Grey of “Men Are From Mars Women Are From Venus” fame also speaks of the power of group understanding “By attending support groups you have the opportunity to experience the chemistry that comes from shared maturity”.

As Christians this should not surprise us. Isolated by the plague through fear of infection the Christian Poet John Donne wrote “No man is an island”. Created in the image of a God in relationship with Himself firstly – “We made man in our image” (Genesis 2 v 26) the desire to relate is intrinsically built into each of us. Even a perfect relationship with God Himself, still left Adam lacking, and God saw it was “not good” for him to be without human companionship. The “Just Me and Jesus” attitude that some Christians hold to can not truly fulfil us when the fullness of our God given desires can only be worked out and understood in the context of others.

Interestingly, God encouraged his people to identify themselves in groups or tribes. In Exodus Six He tells Moses to “bring the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions”. Today we might find that surprising, threatening even – with implications of disunity; but God trusted the Israelites to be strong enough in their identity to enjoy their diversity whilst remaining loyal to the larger group.

Group therapy too works on the principle of the small group (the therapy group) representing the large group (the world outside). The roles we play within the therapy group often mirror very accurately how we react outside it. All members of the group (usually six or seven) are would be therapists to each to each other – and the therapist’s personality remains in the background. Foulkes described this as “therapy of the group by the group”. This is particularly effective therapy for clients who have strong co-dependency difficulties and are worried about being too dependent on their therapist. This is far less likely to happen in a group situation.

It is therefore not just the therapist but the group members whether consciously or not who transfer onto one another and take on roles in the group for each other. This can be incredibly illuminating – and of course a hugely challenging. It is much harder to dismiss six people’s common observation and input than it is the one person in individual counselling. It is my experience as both an individual counsellor and from running a support group for women who have experienced child sexual abuse for eleven years; that it is this pressure and empathy from the group that contributes most towards change. The women in the group often comment that it is the feeling of “shared experience” that helps them breaks out of the shame of abuse and the horrific pain of isolation and self blame.

This is perhaps why group therapy provides the most democratic and fastest routes to new choices and change – witness the hospital reduction stay from one year to six months. I can also personally testify as a client who has experienced both individual and group psychotherapy over many years – it is through the group I have found most challenge and growth.

The obvious analogy of group therapy is of it echoing the original “group” the family or origin; and of course the group provides a unique stage to explore our childhood experiences and also a powerful opportunity to bring closure within the group setting – that often is not available outside it.

Group Therapy also provides the forum to look at current relationships and interpersonal skills, for those who find socialising hard and conversation intimidating receiving positive feedback about their contributions to the group brings confidence and self esteem.

Perhaps though, most importantly, the experience of just belonging to a group in our individualistic and isolating culture can be healing in itself. Dr Nitsun Group Therapist at Goodmayes Hospital in Ilford and Author of “The Anti Group” says this: “This is the therapy for our times. Our is an ego centric culture, its the achievement of the individual that are valued and this can be very isolating. We’ve lost faith in the community and mutual support. As a result a lot of people who might benefit from a group never think about going because they are stuck in that individual mode of thinking.”

Dr Nitsuns’ point perhaps would not be lost on Jesus himself, the man from the original “group” (Father Son and Spirit) and who by example and teaching constantly encourages people then and now to become part of His wider Group.

The Observer: 12th August 2001 “A Problem Shared” by Jim Pollard
The Guardian: 19th May 2001 “Strength in Numbers” by Morris Nitsun
The Early Development of Group Psychotherapy in Britain by Brian Nichol
Mars and Venus On A Date – John Grey Published by Vermilion
Time Top 100 Heroes: “The Healer” Bill W by Susan Cheever
BBC News website