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Section 2: Overview of group work theory and practice

2.1 Introduction to group therapy

To understand how community art counselling works in groups, it is necessary to look to the development of group therapy and its theories.

“One of the principles most fundamental to group therapy is that an individual is affected by the system in which he or she functions. What applies to individuals also applies to the modality of group therapy” (Brabender et al 2004).

Module overview

Rozanne Myburgh

Managing director of Lefika La Phodiso and drama therapist

Introduction to group therapy

Kamal Naran

Community art counsellor

Quick history

Jacob Moreno devised the term group psychotherapy in 1931 and group therapy was first used with children and adolescents. Psychoanalytic approaches to group therapy were developed from 1931 to 1945, as an approach, which was followed by action-oriented approaches, specifically psychodrama (Brabender, et al).

Brabender et al explains that World War I created an interest in group psychology and World War II triggered the use of group therapy as a major treatment modality.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s group therapy entered the community, especially as it was considered a cost-effective therapeutic modality (Brabender, et al). Most of the clinicians running these groups had little or no training in group work and the need for and interest in training to work with groups increased.

Irvin Yalom wrote the book, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, in 1970. This text is considered by many to be the bible of group treatment where Yalom described his interpersonal approach to group treatment. “The overarching goal of an interpersonal group is to enable the individual to improve his or her capacity to have positive relationships with others. The method is to address the member’s manner of relating to other members in the group within the here and now of the sessions” (Brabender, et al).


Watch: John Slane explains Group Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy

2.2 Defining group therapy

Because all of a community art counsellor’s work takes place within a group, it is important for us to understand group work and specifically theories of group therapy. Even though we are not qualified to be group therapists, we use the theory to inform our understanding of the behaviours of participants in groups and the life of groups. It is also important to consider why we choose to work in groups. Group Work can elicit many different feelings and processes for the members of the group. The use of art (and art therapy theories) help us to explore, contain and hold the group. We also need to consider what the use of art brings to the experience of being in a group.

“Group therapy is a treatment modality involving a small group of members and one or more therapists with specialised training in group therapy. It is designed to promote psychological growth and ameliorate psychological problems through the cognitive and affective exploration of the interactions among members, and between members and the therapist” (Brabender et al).

“The art therapy group can serve as an arena to safely experiment with options for new and more adaptive patterns of behaviour through art-making in a structured, contained, non-judgemental environment” (Cooper & Milton).

McNeilly (2006) defines group analytic art therapy as follows: “An incorporation of all that occurs within the session, for its duration. This includes the group members' past and present lives. The 'whole group' view promotes individual and collective free expression through pictorial and verbal imagery, with the union of language, which is the bonding cement of such a synthesis. The intent is to make the uncommunicable communicable through visual symbolic interaction.”

McNeilly (2006) speaks about the matrix in a group therapy session, which consists of the following:

  • What is seen: numbers of people in the room and its contents, chairs, central coffee table, the therapist.
  • What is partly seen: mannerisms, body language, proximity of group members to one another.
  • What is not seen: individuals' thoughts, unconscious, memories, internal associations, reactions to others.

She adds that with an art group, the same principles apply, but there are more elements: The art materials, such as paints, clay, water and crayons can evoke reactions to touch and smell, clients may copy things in the room, they may taste paint and clay, the space used by each individual in the group while they are creating and also the art work itself is added.

2.3 The psychoanalytic group therapy approach

Group therapy

Dr Hayley Berman

Art psychotherapist, founder of Lefika La Phodiso

Because the Lefika La Phodiso model is underpinned by a psychoanalytic approach, we will focus on this approach. Keeping in mind that theorists identified at least seven main theoretical approaches to group therapy.

The psychoanalytic or psychodynamic (as a broader focus) approaches are set apart from other theories by the goals and techniques used. All the theories, however, share a common set of principles whereby human behaviour and functioning is understood. The methods of how change is initiated are also an important focus of all the different approaches.

One of the essential elements of the psychoanalytic approach to group therapy includes the principle of psychic determinism. This concept proposes that all experiences and behaviours occur for a reason. “No matter how random or bizarre an element of intrapsychic life or behaviour may appear, it is fundamentally purposive in that it occurs to serve the needs of the person.”

Through investigation the motivation for experiences and behaviours can be recognised and understood.

When you enter a session as a psychoanalytically informed community art counsellor, you enter with the belief that every aspect of your client’s actions has meaning and coherence and that this can be uncovered through exploration.

The next important element in working psychoanalytically is the concept of the unconscious (explored in depth in previous modules). The unconscious exerts a continual influence upon all experience and both healthy and unhealthy behaviour of the client. The client’s defences (also explored in previous modules) serve to protect and preserve some aspect of a person by keeping content such as thoughts, feelings and impulses unconscious. These defences create conflicts and inhibit the client’s ability to function effectively, have good and stable relationships and achieve a sense of well-being.

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