My last blog post, 5 Reasons Why We Need More Group Therapy, was a plea to fellow counsellors and therapists to get more therapy groups up and running. Groups can be powerful vehicles for personal development and change. Many people wanting to access help are priced out of private individual counselling. Help through the NHS is usually time limited and waiting lists are long.
Many therapists I speak to like the thought of running groups but don’t know where to start. The logistics can get a bit complicated. Finding a group of ready clients all prepared to start at the same time, then assessing everyone and finding a suitable venue can all be a bit of a headache.
In this article I’m sharing what I have learned about setting up groups to help you get that group up off the ground and running.
1. Pick a theme – Don’t get me wrong, I think general therapy groups work very well but usually it’s other therapists or trainees that seek out such groups. For the general public, joining a therapy group is scary. They want to know there will be people who they can relate to in the group. If your group is focused on a shared issue, it creates a mutual task for the group and any prospective clients will be reassured that they are more likely to connect with people. Themes could be anything from anxiety to depression to OCD. My groups are focused on people struggling with binge eating and run open ended. You may prefer to run a closed group for a specific number of sessions.
2. Find a suitable location – I run my group from home. There are no extra overheads this way, zero traveling for me and I like the informality of the setting. However, for many therapists running a group from home just isn’t a viable option. Most counselling centres have rooms for groups but don’t be afraid to think outside the box on this one. Is there a local café that closes at 5pm who might be willing to let you use their space one evening a week? A community hall or a church? See where your local Alcoholic Anonymous meetings are held, perhaps some of those locations may rent the space to you.
3. Pick a start date – This one is so, so important. I made the mistake of believing I should find participants and then announce the start date once I had enough people to run the group. Potential participants are likely to feel a bit unsure and ambivalent about joining a group. People are more likely to join if there is at least some certainty about when it will start. In the end I picked a start date of 29th January and started marketing in October. Nothing happened. Ten days before the first session I still had no-one signed up for the group but then, during the last week, there was a rush for spaces and the group was full! I even had to turn someone away. A deadline is crucial for people to decide to commit but it will test your nerve.
4. Get the word out – Many therapists don’t enjoy the idea of marketing. They believe people will come for therapy when they are ready and have already decided to do so. Quite right. But marketing your group is simply finding ways to let people know about it. They need to know where you are and what you are offering and they will come and enquire if they are interested.
Some ideas to try – edit your online directory profiles to include details of the group, let local therapists know what you are offering in case they have someone to refer, put it on your website and ask your therapist friends to add a link to their websites, print out posters and display in local supermarkets and cafes, share on your social media and ask friends and colleagues to re-share on their accounts, consider a Facebook or Instagram ad campaign, write to local GP practices and include your poster and just talk about it everywhere you can without being too much of a nuisance. I personally found the printed posters (just simple ones created at home) put up locally and my Instagram posts yielded the most results.
5. Managing the money – Taking deposits from people before the group starts benefits everyone. It’s a demonstration of commitment and makes no shows much less likely. Nerves will build as the first session looms closer but having already paid it’s harder for clients to talk themselves out of at least coming and giving it a try. I suggest holding a deposit equivalent to two session and using this to cover the last two sessions in the group. The deposit works particularly well in open ended groups because when the client is ready to leave it encourages them to use those pre-paid sessions to process their ending and say goodbye.
It’s possible that some participants may want to use the group as a drop in service, which can have a negative impact on group cohesion. I recommend you request participants to pay for their space in the group, rather than for their attendance so, if they miss a session, they still pay because it is the seat they are paying for. This helps to encourage commitment and regular attendance.
Setting up a group in private practice really is doable. I have found there is a demand for it. People are designed to be in groups and with a mutual problem they work together, provide mirrors for each other and challenge one another. Doing group work is some of the most satisfying work I have done in my life. I don’t even like to use the word work because it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like a privilege.