The notion of group psychotherapies encompasses a considerable number of techniques and different theoretical points of view. Strictly speaking, group psychotherapy is a method for treating psychopathology and its concomitant suffering by means of the specific action of the group's processes on the individuals who comprise it. There is also a model of group psychotherapy that seeks to treat the group as a specific whole. To accomplish its therapeutic aims and bring about the corresponding changes in personality, group psychotherapy mobilizes in the participants the psychological exploration and work that ensues necessarily as a result of the development of intersubjective and transsubjective links. Various appropriate mechanisms are directed toward this end.
This method of psychotherapy is probably the oldest form of mental and psychosomatic care. Treatment regimens practiced in the Asclepion at Pergamon (Bergama) included group sessions of dream interpretation, as the ancient writings of Aelius Aristides reveal. However, the term "group psychotherapy" is recent: It was introduced by Jacob Moreno around 1930. Various attempts had been made prior to that, from Franz von Mesmer's tub to the explorations of J. H. Pratt (1905) or Trigant Burrow (1914). On the eve and at the beginning of the Second World War, Kurt Lewin and his collaborators developed the basics of group dynamics, based on Gestalt theory, observations of experimental groups, and group training programs. Siegmund Foulkes and Wilfred R. Bion established the groundwork for group analysis and psychoanalytic group psychotherapy. During the 1950s and 1960s this trend saw a remarkable upsurge in the United States, Latin America (Enrique Pichon-Rivière, José Bleger), and in Europe, notably in Great Britain, France, and Italy.
There is considerable variation among the theories, practical techniques, and goals of group psychotherapies, but a certain number of characteristics are common to all its forms. The group is composed of a relatively small number of participants (from three to about a dozen) who come together for a limited time. The restricted size of the group enables each of its participants to perceive and enter into relationship with each of the others; the time limitation, whether or not it is predetermined (long-term groups, short-term therapies, groups that gradually become more open), makes it possible to work with the resistance effects provoked by the group's institutionalization.
Several combinable classification criteria can be used to distinguish different types of groups: mono-therapy or cotherapy groups; groups centered on the group or on the individual; on speech or on nonverbal modes of expression (ergotherapies, art therapies, writing, music); on psychodramatic role-playing or on the body (bioenergy, primal scream, relaxation); on family relations (psychoanalytic and systemic family therapies); on instituted groups (therapy groups within institutions, therapeutic communities). Regardless of the form of communication used to put the therapeutic processes into play (words, screams, improvised or scripted role-playing, sculpting, painting, music, puppets), each theory has its own way of assessing the therapy's processes and effects.
According to the psychoanalytic conception, the group constitutes a staging ground for the externalization, figuration, and contention of pathogenic representations that are unacceptable in the intrapsychic space; it is a mechanism for linking and dynamic transformation of the formations and processes that cannot be internally bound without this detour through the work of intersubjectivity. Groups result in specific modes of transference and resistance. Interpreting these produces a reorganization of the psyche in its encounter with the object-based reality of others, with the prohibitions and founding statements of psychic life and of intersubjectivity. For its members, the group constitutes a powerful identificatory anaclisis; it generates creativity and the capacity for symbolization between intrapsychic and bodily reality and intersubjective and social reality. However, numerous clinical, methodological, and theoretical problems have yet to be worked out. Group psychotherapies are not a panacea. They require a personal demand and personal training; their effectiveness depends on the specific indications, limits, and principles involved.
See also: Group phenomenon; Group analysis; Intersubjective/intrasubjective.