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Credit: Cindy Chen

Allowing yourself to be vulnerable with one person is not easy, but being vulnerable in front of a group of people? That can be quite daunting. Still, this might be a preferred method of therapy for some people.

If you weren’t already aware, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 3624 Market Street offers confidential group sessions, which serve as both a form of support and a means of finding people with whom you can actually relate. Based on my observations and personal experiences, the group programs are significantly more beneficial than CAPS’ one-on-one services. Granted, you should take this advice with a grain of salt, as this may not be the case for everyone.

Personally, after taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons, I was a member of the Returning Students Group in the 2019 spring semester. This comprised a group of students sharing similar experiences and providing advice on easing the transition back to studying full-time at Penn. However, initially, I was understandably hesitant to give this CAPS group program a shot.

Last year, after meeting with several different CAPS clinicians, I found their individual sessions to be ineffective for me. Basic “talk therapy” was not at all productive given my specific situation and circumstances, and exposure and ritual prevention therapy (EX/RP), a more specialized cognitive-behavioral therapy for my condition, worked for me instead. Still, I sought greater support and found it through this group at CAPS. Surrounding myself with other Penn students who could relate and connect to me proved more valuable than I could have imagined. 

Empathy does not come naturally. Many people cannot fully and truly understand your struggles, where you are coming from, and why you feel the way you do, unless they too have been in a similar situation or experience, or have at least witnessed it firsthand. The best advice I have received has been from people who don’t just sympathize with me, but empathize with me. Though I had never considered joining a support group before, I am tremendously grateful for the sincere support of my fellow returning students and the empathic discussions that we’ve shared.

According to their website, CAPS offers three basic types of group programs: therapy groups (which address one specific issue), drop-in groups (which are similar but less formal, and for which no sign-up is required), and workshops (which teach certain coping skills). For the most part, the groups meet weekly and consist of about a dozen students, and are usually facilitated by two CAPS clinicians. 

Normally, students are referred directly to these groups by a clinician, either at their initial assessment or at a scheduled session. Additionally, students are welcome to request a specific group by reaching out to its respective leader. Contact information and further details can be found here as well as on the CAPS website. There are usually forms to fill out, a simple screening process, or a meeting with the clinician group leaders before it is decided whether the group is deemed the most suitable fit for you. 

Contrary to popular belief, group therapy does not mean that your struggles do not require the individualized support and attention of one-on-one therapy. Group therapy does not undermine your personal journey or troubles. Rather, it is designed to highlight each member’s specific background and circumstances, and for each to share their individual perspectives and words of wisdom. If anything, group therapy is empowering. 

Even if you are not necessarily “struggling,” I highly recommend that you try a support group out for yourself before you decide that individualized therapy is the more effective option. Prioritizing our mental health is important, and if one-on-one “talk therapy” has not benefited you, don’t fret — there are other options out there. 

BRIDGET YU is a College sophomore from Los Angeles, CA studying Biological Basis of Behavior. She plans to attend medical school and specialize in psychiatry. Her email address is bridgtyu@sas.upenn.edu.

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