Understanding the Difference Between a Support Group and Group Therapy

differences between support group and group therapyAs a certified group therapist, I often get calls from people seeking support groups.  But after speaking with them, I realize that many of these people would actually benefit more from a therapy group and that’s actually what they’re looking for.  Due to the fact that most people are more familiar with the concept of a support group than a therapy group, I often need to explain the differences to them.  Even other therapists that don’t lead therapy groups can be unfamiliar with the differences between the two types of groups.

Understanding the differences can help you find the right group for you.

Here are the major differences between a support group and group therapy.


Support Groups

The goal of a support group is to help you cope.  You join a support group when you realize that you’re usual coping skills are not enough to help you through a current difficulty in your life and that you need more support than your friends and family can provide.  The group members are all going through a similar challenge in their life.  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.  It can make the difference between coming through this struggle damaged or stronger than before.

Group Therapy

The goal of group therapy is change.  You join a therapy group when you have a recurring problem or dissatisfaction with your life and you’ve come to realize that change needs to start with you.  The goal of a therapy group is to help you understand yourself better in order to change the thoughts and behaviors that lead to the problems in your life.


If you consider the group goals or either coping with or changing a problem in your life, it can help you identify the sorts of problems that are best suited for each type of group.

Support Groups

You must cope with what you cannot change.  Support groups are best suited for handling issues and challenges that cannot be changed.  You cannot change the fact that you have a child with autism or that you’re going through a divorce or that you’ve lost a loved one who died.  What you can change, though, through your involvement in a support group, is how well you cope with these struggles.

Group Therapy

Change yourself, change your life.  There are many problems in life that can be changed through gaining new insight into the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are impacting the problem. Depression, anxiety, addiction, unsatisfying relationships, low self-esteem, difficulty asserting yourself; all of these difficulties can be treated and positively altered through the personal work you do in group therapy.


Support Groups

The group members support each other’s healing process by listening respectfully as each member shares what they’re feeling, by offering encouragement and by sharing advice.

Group Therapy

The group members are focusing on understanding themselves better and changing their problematic thoughts and behaviors.  How this is done is by group members being willing to investigate how they think, feel and behave in group and in life.  Group members express how they feel about the circumstances and relationships in their life as well as how they feel in the group.  Group members challenge themselves to be truthful, vulnerable and able to give and receive feedback.  The growth potential for allowing yourself to open up with others is tremendous.


Support Groups

In a support group, group members share a common issue such as a divorce support group, a cancer support group or a grief support group.  You wouldn’t have someone coping with cancer in the same group as someone coping with divorce.  Acceptance into a support group is easy and simply based on a member’s desire to be in the group and whether they share the issue that is the focus of the group.

Group Therapy

In a therapy group, the group members can have one particular issue that they’re addressing such as depression, anxiety or relationship issues or they can be a very diverse group with members working on all three of these issues and more.  The groups can be all male, all female or mixed gender groups.  Sometimes the more diverse the membership, the greater opportunity there is for group members to learn and grow from each other.  The selection of group members is more complicated and group members are interviewed in order to make sure that the group is appropriate for the member and that the member is appropriate for the group.


Support Groups

Since providing additional support to help members cope is the main goal of a support group, it makes sense that support groups would encourage the members to meet outside of the group sessions in order to develop deeper relationships that they can rely on between sessions and possibly even after the group ends.

Group Therapy

Therapy groups are the exact opposite in this regard.  Because the goal of a therapy group is deep, personal exploration that leads to change, you need a safe, contained environment where participants can be honest and emotionally vulnerable without worrying about how it will affect their personal lives.  It’s kind of like “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”  Members can be more daring when they know that it won’t leave the room.  There are several other clinical reasons that are too involved to explain here, why outside relationships can be damaging to therapy groups.  So communicating with fellow group members outside of the group sessions is strictly discouraged.


Support Groups

Each support group may have its own set of requests that they ask of the members, but usually the commitments to a support group are minimal.  Members can drop in for a session whenever they choose.  Although it’s encouraged for members to attend regularly for the benefit of themselves and the group, it is often not expected.  I would suspect that most support groups simply request that all the members treat each other with respect.

Group Therapy

Because of the deep work of a therapy group, more commitments are required of the members.  Members coming and going would be disruptive to the process because the absent members would miss out on important disclosures or a conversation that occurred in one session could not be continued in the next session.  Therefore, most groups require an initial time commitment of two to three months participation in the group, regular attendance (with some exceptions), and when it’s time for a member to leave the group that the group has three sessions to say goodbye and express their feelings about the end of that relationship.


This blog defined the differences between support groups and therapy groups in their purest form, but you may discover that there are also many other types of groups out there.  There are art therapy groups and dance therapy groups.  There are dream interpretation groups and canine therapy groups.  Most of these alternatives are just indicating the therapist’s approach to therapy and are not defining whether the group is a support group or a therapy group.  For any type of group that you encounter, this blog can help you assess the group more clearly.

Groups are a wonderful option for finding support or personal growth.  I hope this blog has helped you find the right group for you.

I currently have openings in a co-ed psychotherapy group, Mondays 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in Encino, CA.

If you’re interested in learning more about my therapy group/support group, Contact Rena Pollak, LMFT for a free 15 minute phone consultation


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19 thoughts on “Understanding the Difference Between a Support Group and Group Therapy

  1. Revel Miller, PhD

    Rena- Thank you for this insightful differentiation between support and therapy groups. I appreciate the clear distinctions that you made and the time you put into making this all very understandable. You made a valuable and educational clarification here!

  2. Ted Helberg M.D.

    Very nicely done. I have often bumped into this issue of patients believing that their participation in a support group being the equivalent of a group therapy. As much as I value and feel the importance of alcoholics/addicts involvement in 12srep programs, it is often necessary to clarify that it is not a therapy.

    1. RenaPollak Post author

      Thanks, Ted. There definitely is a lot of confusion about the different sorts of groups out there. I’m also a great advocate for the benefits of 12 step groups. 12 step groups are great for helping people manage their addictions and maintain their sobriety. But there is deeper, personal work that can be done in group therapy that isn’t possible in that environment. Please feel free to print out the article and share it with your patients if necessary. I give it to my clients also.

      1. Evelynne Tapscott

        One problem is that people in 12 step groups who work the steps are actually trying to dig deep and make real changes in themselves and their sponsees. It can go terribly wrong. It did for me because we started digging into my past trauma and i really needed someone more experienced for that. That aspect of the groups worry me. Its more than a support meeting once you hook up with sponsors and such and its aim is change.

        1. RenaPollak Post author

          It sounds like a very upsetting experience, tapping into traumatic memories. Even in a 12 step group, I believe it’s possible to go deep and have a positive outcome but it can also be beyond the skills of the group. It is best, when doing deep work, to have a licensed professional trained in trauma there with you.

  3. Keisha Tanner

    Thank you for writing this article. I think not only would it be great to share this with colleagues, but also with clients during the pre-screening process, so that they understand what to expect and what is expected of them.

    1. RenaPollak Post author

      I’m glad you found it helpful. With all the misrepresentations about group therapy that exist on t.v. and in movies, I think we do need to educate our clients about what group therapy is really like.

  4. Ruth Michelson

    I enjoyed this article; clear and succinct. I run a Family Caregiver Support Group. You are spot-on with your support group description… I would only add that while becoming a participant is as easy as showing up, not all who show up are appropriate for
    a support group, and they need considerable attention. Some monopolize, some stray off topic, some are there for inappropriate reasons. Also, as it is in a therapeutic group, confidentiality is a core premise of our support group, so participants can feel
    safe sharing whatever is on their mind…

    1. RenaPollak Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Ruth. That’s a very important point you make about participants being the right match for a group. Sometimes it takes members a little while to figure out how to be a helpful participant and how to use the group appropriately. In my groups, the process of figuring out how best to work in group is an important part of the learning experience. Becoming a valuable member of a therapy group can help people learn to become valuable members of their family group, work groups, and social groups.

  5. Nate PAge, PhD, LP

    Nailed it! This is the best articulation I could find of the primary differences between support groups and therapy groups. I mentioned you Renata, and this blog article, in a video that I just posted today on YouTube entitled, “Difference Between Support Groups and Therapy Groups”. I find that many of my colleagues have trouble understanding the difference between support and therapy groups, and I’ve had trouble articulating that difference to them. Your blog (and the process of making a video about this content) has helped me better communicate this important distinction. Thanks!

    1. RenaPollak Post author

      Hi Nate,

      I’m glad the blog helped. I know that it can be difficult to explain these different types of groups. If you could add a link to the blog in your description of the video, that would be very helpful too.

    1. RenaPollak Post author

      Hi Dave,

      Yes, group therapy is very effective for working on depression. While a depression support group can be a helpful part of your support system, a therapy group can bring about change.

  6. Alice Farber

    Thanks , Rena, for your very easy to understand blog.
    It has helped me to understand the difference between therapy and support groups, however, I am wondering if there is a thin line between the two ? For example- in the group I am in we all joined because we feel isolated in our lives. I want more connections with people. I joined the
    group to get support and meet others that could possibly turn into friendships. I am a very active person , however, in my City
    the activities out there do not encourage much mingling. What to do ? I made possible friendships in this support group , yet the leader is saying
    this is a therapy group. MOST confusing. OF course I will talk to the leader about this

    1. RenaPollak Post author

      Hi Alice, I’m glad my article was helpful. And yes, there can be a thin line between a therapy and a support group. It really is up to the leader to make it clear what the expectations of the group are and whether outside relationships are discouraged. I’ve had many clients that wanted to extend the close bonds formed in group into their personal lives, so I can understand your desire to do that also. But it sort of destroys one thing to have another. The group doesn’t work if there are outside relationships. It corrupts the container of the group. The desire to enjoy the relationships created in the group reminds me of the saying “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” The group teaches skills for creating deep relationships for a lifetime.

  7. Belle Anderson

    Thank you for this article. I facilitate a cancer support group within a small non-profit cancer support organization. Other facilitators there are licensed social workers. Occasionally from those colleagues, I encounter doubt about my ability to facilitate such a group, absent a similar professional degree. The groups offered are of a supportive nature, not therapeutic. This article helps me validate my legitimacy.

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