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Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment: Group Therapy. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2005. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 41.)

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Substance Abuse Treatment: Group Therapy.

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1 Groups and Substance Abuse Treatment

The natural propensity of human beings to congregate makes group therapy a powerful therapeutic tool for treating substance abuse, one that is as helpful as individual therapy, and sometimes more successful. One reason for this efficacy is that groups intrinsically have many rewarding benefits—such as reducing isolation and enabling members to witness the recovery of others—and these qualities draw clients into a culture of recovery. Another reason groups work so well is that they are suitable especially for treating problems that commonly accompany substance abuse, such as depression, isolation, and shame.

Although many groups can have therapeutic effects, this TIP concentrates only on groups that have trained leaders and that are designed to promote recovery from substance abuse. Great emphasis is placed on interpersonal process groups, which help clients resolve problems in relating to other people, problems from which they have attempted to flee by means of addictive substances. While this TIP is not intended as a training manual for individuals training to be group therapists, it provides substance abuse counselors with insights and information that can improve their ability to manage the groups they currently lead.

Overview

Introduction

Defining Therapeutic Groups in Substance Abuse Treatment

Advantages of Group Treatment

Modifying Group Therapy To Treat Substance Abuse

Approach of This TIP

Introduction

The lives of individuals are shaped, for better or worse, by their experiences in groups. People are born into groups. Throughout life, they join groups. They will influence and be influenced by family, religious, social, and cultural groups that constantly shape behavior, self‐image, and both physical and mental health.

Groups can support individual members in times of pain and trouble, and they can help people grow in ways that are healthy and creative. However, groups also can support deviant behavior or influence an individual to act in ways that are unhealthy or destructive.

Because our need for human contact is biologically determined, we are, from the start, social creatures. This propensity to congregate is a powerful therapeutic tool. Formal therapy groups can be a compelling source of persuasion, stabilization, and support. Groups organized around therapeutic goals can enrich members with insight and guidance; and during times of crisis, groups can comfort and guide people who otherwise might be unhappy or lost. In the hands of a skilled, well‐trained group leader, the potential curative forces inherent in a group can be harnessed and directed to foster healthy attachments, provide positive peer reinforcement, act as a forum for self‐expression, and teach new social skills. In short, group therapy can provide a wide range of therapeutic services, comparable in efficacy to those delivered in individual therapy. In some cases, group therapy can be more beneficial than individual therapy (Scheidlinger 2000; Toseland and Siporin 1986).

Group therapy and addiction treatment are natural allies. One reason is that people who abuse substances often are more likely to remain abstinent and committed to recovery when treatment is provided in groups, apparently because of rewarding and therapeutic forces such as affiliation, confrontation, support, gratification, and identification. This capacity of group therapy to bond patients to treatment is an important asset because the greater the amount, quality, and duration of treatment, the better the client’s prognosis (Leshner 1997; Project MATCH Research Group 1997).

The effectiveness of group therapy in the treatment of substance abuse also can be attributed to the nature of addiction and several factors associated with it, including (but not limited to) depression, anxiety, isolation, denial, shame, temporary cognitive impairment, and character pathology (personality disorder, structural deficits, or an uncohesive sense of self). Whether a person abuses substances or not, these problems often respond better to group treatment than to individual therapy (Kanas 1982; Kanas and Barr 1983). Group therapy is also effective because people are fundamentally relational creatures.

Defining Therapeutic Groups in Substance Abuse Treatment

All groups can be therapeutic. Anytime someone becomes emotionally attached to other group members, a group leader, or the group as a whole, the relationship has the potential to influence and change that person. Identifying a group as “therapy” does not imply that other groups are not therapeutic. In preparing this TIP, the consensus panel debated at length what constitutes “group therapy” and what distinguishes therapy groups from other types of groups.

Although many types of groups can have therapeutic elements and effects, the group types included in this TIP are based on the goals and intentions of the groups, as well as the intended audience of the TIP (especially substance abuse treatment counselors and other substance abuse treatment professionals). Thus, this TIP is limited to groups that (1) have trained leaders and (2) intend to produce some type of healing or recovery from substance abuse. This TIP describes (in chapter 2) five models of group therapy currently used in substance abuse treatment:

  • Psychoeducational groups, which teach about substance abuse.
  • Skills development groups, which hone the skills necessary to break free of addictions.
  • Cognitive–behavioral groups, which rearrange patterns of thinking and action that lead to addiction.
  • Support groups, which comprise a forum where members can debunk each other’s excuses and support constructive change.
  • Interpersonal process group psychotherapy (referred to hereafter as “interpersonal process groups” or “therapy groups”), which enable clients to recreate their pasts in the here‐and‐now of group and rethink the relational and other life problems that they have previously fled by means of addictive substances.

Treatment providers routinely use the first four models and various combinations of them. The last is not as widely used, chiefly because of the extensive training required to lead such groups and the long duration of the groups, which demands a high degree of commitment from both providers and clients. All the same, many people enter substance abuse treatment with a long history of failed relationships exacerbated by substance use. In these cases, an extended period of therapy is warranted to resolve the client’s problems with relationships. The reality that extended treatment is not always feasible does not negate its desirability.

This TIP does not discuss multifamily and multi‐couple groups, which are discussed in TIP 39, Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment 2004). Even though multifamily and multicouple groups typically are made up of unrelated groups of families, they focus on family relations as they affect and are affected by a member with a substance use disorder. This TIP concentrates on therapy groups, which have a distinctively different focus.

Also outside the scope of this TIP is the use of peer‐led self‐help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or group activities like social events, religious services, sports, and games. Any or all may have one or more therapeutic effects, but are not specifically designed to achieve that purpose. Figure 1-1 shows other differences between self‐help groups and interpersonal process groups. In most aspects, the comparison would apply to the other four group models as well.

Figure 1-1. Differences Between 12‐Step Self‐Help Groups and Interpersonal Process Groups

Self‐Help Group Interpersonal Process Group
Size Unlimited (often large)Small (8–15 members)
Leadership
  • Peer leader or individual in recovery
  • Leadership is earned over time
  • Implicit hierarchical leadership structure
  • Trained professional
  • Appointed leader
  • Formal hierarchical leadership structure
Participation VoluntaryVoluntary and involuntary
Group Government Self‐governingLeader governed
Content
  • Environmental factors, no examination of group interaction
  • Emphasis on similarities among members
  • Here‐and‐now focus
  • Examination of intragroup behavior and extragroup factors
  • Emphasis on differences and similarities among members
  • Here‐and‐now focus plus historical focus
Screening Interview NoneAlways
Group Processes Universality, empathy, affective sharing, self‐disclosure (public statement of problem), mutual affirmation, morale building, catharsis, immediate positive feedback, high degree of persuasivenessCohesion, mutual identification, education, catharsis, use of group pressure to encourage abstinence and retention of group membership, outside socialization (depending on the group contract or agreement)
Group Goals
  • Positive goal setting, behaviorally oriented
  • Focus on the group as a whole and the similarities among members
  • Ambitious goals: immediate problem plus individual personality issues
  • Individual as well as group focus
Leader Activity
  • Educator/role model, catalyst for learning
  • Less member‐to‐leader distance
  • Responsible for directing therapeutic group experience
  • More member‐to‐leader distance
Use of Psychodynamic Techniques NoYes
Confidentiality Anonymity preservedAnonymity strongly emphasized and includes everything that occurs in the group, not just the identity of group members
Sponsorship Program Yes (usually same sex)None
Determination of Time in Group
  • Members may leave group at their own choosing
  • Members may avoid self‐disclosure or discussion of any subject
  • Predetermined minimal term of group membership
  • Avoidance of discussion seen as possible “resistance”
Involvement in Other Therapies YesYes—eclectic models
No—psychodynamic models
Time Factors Unlimited group participation possible over yearsOften time‐limited group experiences
Frequency of Meetings Active encouragement of daily participationMeets less frequently (often once or twice weekly)
Source: Adapted from Spitz 2001. Used with permission.

Advantages of Group Treatment

Treating adult clients in groups has many advantages, as well as some risks. Any treatment modality—group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, and medication—can yield poor results if applied indiscriminately or administered by an unskilled or improperly trained therapist. The potential drawbacks of group therapy, however, are no greater than for any other form of treatment.

Some of the numerous advantages to using groups in substance abuse treatment are described below (Brown and Yalom 1977; Flores 1997; Garvin unpublished manuscript; Vannicelli 1992).

  • Groups provide positive peer support and pressure to abstain from substances of abuse. Unlike AA, and, to some degree, substance abuse treatment program participation, group therapy, from the very beginning, elicits a commitment by all the group members to attend and to recognize that failure to attend, to be on time, and to treat group time as special disappoints the group and reduces its effectiveness. Therefore, both peer support and pressure for abstinence are strong.
  • Groups reduce the sense of isolation that most people who have substance abuse disorders experience. At the same time, groups can enable participants to identify with others who are struggling with the same issues. Although AA and treatment groups of all types provide these opportunities for sharing, for some people the more formal and deliberate nature of participation in process group therapy increases their feelings of security and enhances their ability to share openly.
  • Groups enable people who abuse substances to witness the recovery of others. From this inspiration, people who are addicted to substances gain hope that they, too, can maintain abstinence. Furthermore, an interpersonal process group, which is of long duration, allows a magnified witnessing of both the changes related to recovery as well as group members’ intra‐ and interpersonal changes.
  • Groups help members learn to cope with their substance abuse and other problems by allowing them to see how others deal with similar problems. Groups can accentuate this process and extend it to include changes in how group members relate to bosses, parents, spouses, siblings, children, and people in general.
  • Groups can provide useful information to clients who are new to recovery. For example, clients can learn how to avoid certain triggers for use, the importance of abstinence as a priority, and how to self‐identify as a person recovering from substance abuse. Group experiences can help deepen these insights. For example, self‐identifying as a person recovering from substance abuse can be a complex process that changes significantly during different stages of treatment and recovery and often reveals the set of traits that makes the system of a person’s self as altogether unique.
  • Groups provide feedback concerning the values and abilities of other group members. This information helps members improve their conceptions of self or modify faulty, distorted conceptions. In terms of process groups in particular, as specific themes emerge in a client’s group experience, repetitive feedback from multiple group members and the therapist can chip away at those faulty or distorted conceptions in slightly different ways until they not only are correctable, but also the very process of correction and change is revealed through the examination of the group processes.
  • Groups offer family‐like experiences. Groups can provide the support and nurturance that may have been lacking in group members’ families of origin. The group also gives members the opportunity to practice healthy ways of interacting with their families.
  • Groups encourage, coach, support, and reinforce as members undertake difficult or anxiety‐provoking tasks.
  • Groups offer members the opportunity to learn or relearn the social skills they need to cope with everyday life instead of resorting to substance abuse. Group members can learn by observing others, being coached by others, and practicing skills in a safe and supportive environment.
  • Groups can effectively confront individual members about substance abuse and other harmful behaviors. Such encounters are possible because groups speak with the combined authority of people who have shared common experiences and common problems. Confrontation often plays a part of substance abuse treatment groups because group members tend to deny their problems. Participating in the confrontation of one group member can help others recognize and defeat their own denial.
  • Groups allow a single treatment professional to help a number of clients at the same time. In addition, as a group develops, each group member eventually becomes acculturated to group norms and can act as a quasi‐therapist himself, thereby ratifying and extending the treatment influence of the group leader.
  • Groups can add needed structure and discipline to the lives of people with substance use disorders, who often enter treatment with their lives in chaos. Therapy groups can establish limitations and consequences, which can help members learn to clarify what is their responsibility and what is not.
  • Groups instill hope, a sense that “If he can make it, so can I.” Process groups can expand this hope to dealing with the full range of what people encounter in life, overcome, or cope with.
  • Groups often support and provide encouragement to one another outside the group setting. For interpersonal process groups, though, outside contacts may or may not be disallowed, depending on the particular group contract or agreements.

Modifying Group Therapy To Treat Substance Abuse

Modifying group therapy to make it applicable to and effective with clients who abuse substances requires three improvements. One is specific training and education for therapists so that they fully understand therapeutic group work and the special characteristics of clients with substance use disorders. The importance of understanding the curative process that occurs in groups cannot be underestimated.

Most substance abuse counselors have responded by adapting skills used in individual therapy. Counselors have also sought direction, clinical training, and practical suggestions. Despite individual efforts, however, group therapy often is conducted as individual therapy in a group.

Individual therapy is not equivalent to group therapy. Some principles that work well with individuals are inappropriate for group therapy. Using the wrong approach may lead to several undesirable results. First, the rich potential of groups—self‐understanding, psychological growth, emotional healing, and true intimacy—will be left unfulfilled. Second, group leaders who are unfamiliar with and insensitive to issues that manifest themselves in group therapy may find themselves in a difficult situation. Third, therapists who think they are doing group therapy when they actually are not may observe the poor results and conclude that group therapy is ineffective. Compounding all these difficulties is the fact that group therapy is so ubiquitous. Thus, poorly conceived approaches are being used frequently.

Group therapy also is not equivalent to 12‐Step program practices. Many therapists who lack full qualifications for group work have adapted practices from AA and other 12‐Step programs for use in therapeutic groups. To say that this borrowing is inadvisable is not to say that the principles of AA are inadequate. On the contrary, many people seem to be unable to recover from dependency without AA or a program similar to it. For this reason, most effective treatment programs make attendance at AA or another 12‐Step program a mandatory part of the treatment process. By the same token, AA and other 12‐Step programs are not group therapy. Rather, they are complementary components to the recovery process. Twelve‐Step programs can help keep the individual who abuses substances abstinent while group therapy provides opportunities for these individuals to understand and explore the emotional and interpersonal conflicts that can contribute to substance abuse.

Progress toward optimal group therapy has also been hindered by the misconception that group therapy with clients who have addictions does not require specially qualified leaders. This notion is false. Therapy groups cannot just take care of themselves. Group therapy, properly conducted, is difficult. One reason that it is challenging has to do with the nature of the clients; an addicted population poses unique problems for the group therapy leader. A second reason is the complexity of group therapy; the leader requires a vast amount of specialized knowledge and skills, including a clear understanding of group process and the stages of development of group dynamics. Such mastery only comes with extended training and experience leading groups.

Many groups led by untrained or poorly trained leaders have not fulfilled their potential and may even have had negative effects on a client’s recovery. It matters little whether the inadequately trained group therapist is a person who once abused substances or someone who developed knowledge in a traditional course of academically based training. Where problems exist, they usually relate to one of two deficiencies: a lack of effective group therapy training or use of a group therapy model that is inadequate for clients who are chemically dependent. Additional training and education is needed to produce therapists who are well qualified to lead therapy groups composed primarily of individuals who are chemically dependent.

A second major improvement needed if people who have addictions are to benefit from group therapy is a clear answer to the question, “Why is group therapy so effective for people with addictions?” We already have part of the answer, and it lies in the individual with addiction, a person whose character style often involves a defensive posture commonly referred to as denial. Addiction is, in fact, frequently referred to as a disease of denial.

The individual who is chemically dependent usually comes into treatment with an uncommonly complex set of defenses and character pathology. Any group leader who intends to help people who have addictions benefit from treatment should have a clear understanding of each group member’s defensive process and character dynamics. More than 20 years ago, John Wallace (1978) wrote about this important issue in an informative essay on the defensive style of the individual who is addicted to alcohol. He referred to these character‐related defensive features as the preferred defense system of the individual addicted to alcohol.

A third major modification needed is the adaptation of the group therapy model to the treatment of substance abuse. The principles of group therapy need to be tailored to meet the realities of treating clients with substance use disorders.

For the most part, group therapy has been based on a model derived from outpatient therapy for clients whose problems may or may not include substance abuse. The theoretical underpinnings and practical applications of general group therapy are not always applicable to individuals who abuse substances. Substance abuse treatment sometimes is implemented as a grab bag of strategies, approaches, and techniques that were not tailored for people with substance use disorders. Further, the common characteristics and typical dynamics seen in this population have not always been evaluated adequately, and this lapse has inhibited the development of effective methods of treatment for these clients.

This model suitability problem is further complicated by the fact that clients with substance use disorders, and even staff members, often become confused about the different types of group treatment modalities. For instance, in the course of their treatment, clients may engage in AA, Narcotics Anonymous, other 12‐Step groups, discussion groups, educational groups, continuing care groups, and support groups. Given this mix, clients often become confused about the purpose of group therapy, and the treatment staff sometimes underestimates the impact that group therapy can make on an individual’s recovery.

The upshot of these problems has been partial or complete failure; that is, the techniques and strategies that usually work with the general psychiatric population often do not work with people abusing substances. A further negative result is that the clients who have addictions may be unfairly viewed as poor treatment risks—people resistant to treatment and unmotivated to change.

Time also is an important factor in a person’s recovery. What a group leader does in group therapy with clients in an inpatient setting in a hospital during the first few days or weeks of recovery will differ dramatically from what that same group therapist will do with the same recovering person in a continuing care group 6 months into abstinence with the expectation that the person will remain in the group at least another 6 to 12 months.

Approach of This TIP

While this TIP does not provide the training needed to become an interpersonal process group therapist, the point of view, attitudes, and considerations of these group therapists infuse the discussions throughout this TIP. The panel hopes that this TIP will help counselors expand their awareness and comprehension of dynamics that might be going on in their current substance abuse treatment groups. These insights will help counselors become better prepared to manage their groups and their individual members, inform group members’ individual therapists of possible issues that need resolution, record dynamics and issues for use in treatment during later stages of recovery, and improve retention by appropriately acknowledging issues that are outside the scope of the group. The TIP will achieve its purpose to the extent that it assists counselors as they juggle immediate client needs, interactions in groups, tasks leading to recovery, and sheer human complexity.

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