Online group therapy is an approach to mental health treatment that involves one or more therapists working with small groups of people at the same time online.
During group therapy, a person not only receives help from the therapist but gains support from people who have similar conditions or experiences. This can help improve their perspective on a problem and realize they are not alone in dealing with it.
This article discusses what online group therapy is, the potential benefits and risks, and how to find these services.
Online group therapy involves 3–15 people with similar mental health challenges who meet over an online video conference with a therapist or psychologist. In some cases, there may be more than one therapist or psychologist present.
The therapist or psychologist’s role is to facilitate group interaction, offer coping strategies, and provide effective evidence-based therapy that meets the needs of the group.
Typically, online group therapy sessions occur 1–2 times per week for an hour each, but this can vary. Mostly, it should involve the same group of individuals, to allow meaningful connections and interactions.
Online group therapy can be useful for a range of mental health conditions or emotional difficulties. Some of these include:
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the benefits of in-person group therapy include:
- access to a support network
- a sense of belonging
- gaining perspective by listening to others
- discovering new ways of coping that an individual otherwise might not have considered
- feeling less alone
Many of these benefits may apply to online group therapy. A 2015 study comparing group and individual therapy for adolescents experiencing depression conclude both may offer promising long-term benefits.
An older review noted group therapy was better than individual treatment for improving mental state, quality of life, and social functioning in people living with schizophrenia.
Online group therapy may also be a suitable additional treatment alongside individual online therapy. A small 2018 study found that out of 22 participants, 82% felt positively about combining the two approaches.
Online group therapy also provides its own unique advantages:
- Accessibility: People who live in remote areas, or who have an illness or disability, may be unable to attend sessions in person. Online group therapy makes it possible for anyone with internet access to attend.
- Convenience: Being able to connect to online group therapy sessions from a person’s home may be useful for those with busy lives.
- Comfort: Engaging in online group therapy from home allows people to feel safe in their own environment. This may make group members feel safer to disclose personal stories and share their feelings.
- Cheaper: Online group therapy can be less expensive than individual therapy, making it more accessible to those who need it.
Before a person joins an online therapy group, it is good to think about what they want or need from therapy. For example, people might consider whether they prefer to:
- join a group that focuses on a specific experience, such as trauma or bereavement
- join a group that practices a specific therapy or follows a particular program
- feel better by talking to people from the same background as them
People who take note of these preferences will find it easier to narrow down which group to join.
However, for some people, online group therapy may be a daunting prospect. Some may not feel comfortable discussing their emotions in groups. These people may benefit more from individual therapy.
There are also some practical considerations, such as privacy and internet access. If a person does not have access to a reliable internet connection or a private space where they can participate in group therapy, they may prefer in-person group therapy sessions.
Talk to a doctor or therapist
If a person is considering online group therapy, they may wish to discuss this with a doctor or psychotherapist. Medical professionals may be able to help with aspects of their treatment, such as:
- determining whether online group therapy is an appropriate option
- recommending services, organizations, or therapists that provide group therapy
- helping someone if they need additional support outside of group therapy, such as medication or individual sessions
Alternatively, a person may search online to find therapy options. If they choose this method, it is a good idea to check the online groups they are considering are legitimate before paying any fees.
One of the downsides of online groups is that a person cannot always be sure they are legitimate. If they are suspicious of the therapist or psychologist running the sessions, ask to see their credentials, and check online to see if they are licensed.
It is also important to consider online security and privacy. People can check in advance that sessions take place on a secure online platform, or via secure video call.
Try it out
If possible, people may find it useful to trial online group therapy without making a commitment to it. This can help someone determine if a particular group or therapist is a good fit for them. A person could ask to sit in on a session to see what it is like before they join.
Online group therapy costs can vary depending on the therapist, the size of the group, and other factors. According to the APA, most insurance providers do not cover online therapy. However, a person should check with their healthcare insurance directly.
In some cases, people may be able to find free alternatives. However, free online therapy and support groups can have limitations, such as:
- Text-only therapy: Some free online group therapy takes place via instant messenger only. This can prevent someone from building rapport with their therapist and other group members, as they cannot interact face-to-face. Having a positive relationship with a therapist is a key part of mental health treatment, so this is something to consider.
- Peer mediation: Some free online support groups are not monitored by a healthcare professional. For some, support from peers may be all they need. However, a person who seeks psychotherapy or counseling for their mental health will need a professional therapist to guide them.
- Lack of training: Peer-mediated groups are often unable to respond to dangerous situations, such as when a member of the group experiences home abuse, or feels suicidal.
Free online groups can still provide someone with a place to talk about how they feel. However, it is important to know that some people may require professional support from a licensed counselor, therapist, or psychologist.
Asking for help is a positive first step towards feeling better. A person may wish to seek help from a doctor or therapist if they:
- no longer enjoy activities or hobbies
- often feel worried, alert, or on edge
- have thoughts and feelings that they are struggling to cope with
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
Online group therapy involves several people with the same or similar conditions working with a therapist at the same time. It can provide people with a support network, helping them feel less alone. These sessions can also help people who find it difficult to attend in-person sessions.
To find an online therapy group, a person can ask a doctor or mental health professional for recommendations, or search online for the type of therapy that interests them.