How online group therapy helped link the lonely together

During the pandemic, there was a significant increase in the number of people who complained about feeling lonely.

 AIDING THE isolated.  (photo credit: Etienne Boulanger/Unsplash)
AIDING THE isolated.
(photo credit: Etienne Boulanger/Unsplash)

According to a worldwide survey, about 33% of adults experience feelings of loneliness, although the percentage is higher as people age. In Israel, surveys have found roughly the same percentages. 

Loneliness is not only harmful emotionally and psychologically – it also takes a serious toll on our physical health, significantly increasing mortality rates (Niobe Way, The Crisis of Connection: Roots, Consequences, and Solutions, August 21, 2018, NYU Press). 

During the pandemic, there was a significant increase in the number of people who complained about feeling lonely. Older people living alone were a very vulnerable group, but so were teens cut off from their peers at a time in life when peer bonding is a crucial step on the way to independence. Many people who were isolated at home, especially at the onset of the pandemic, began to seek professional online counseling to help them deal with their loneliness, depression and anxieties. 

In my private practice, many of my clients suffer from loneliness as a result of varying personal and family problems. Of course, during COVID, these individuals were more at risk for depression and feeling alone. To help some of these clients, I decided to start a Zoom-based online therapy group. I screened and recruited three people to join – a man in his sixties and two women in their fifties. Group members’ personal issues varied, such as divorce, cut-off from adult children, anxiety and depression. All three clients are currently single. Gradually, over a three-month period, the three clients got to know each other quite well and found many commonalities about one another that they could identify with. 

A woman walks alone in a park (credit: INGIMAGE)A woman walks alone in a park (credit: INGIMAGE)

Reducing loneliness, solving each other's problems

The initial purpose of the group was to help them reduce loneliness by developing some connection with one another. This goal was quickly accomplished, and the group moved toward building a cohesive group culture that focused on caring and bonding with one another. The group members became active in solving each other’s personal problems. 

For our Zoom meetings, I chose the group grid Zoom pattern, which allowed all four of us to be visually present at the same time, and made it easy to focus on the person who was speaking. Since it was challenging enough to do a therapy group online, I preferred to keep the group small. I found that although reading body language was lost, reading of facial expressions was significantly enhanced. 

I am aware of some of the difficulties and shortcomings of online individual psychotherapy and group therapy. For most people, real-life presence is a core requisite to see a therapist. While challenging for most people, including therapists, online therapy can work. The COVID pandemic reinforced the concept that necessity is the mother of invention, and I would add the mother of adaptation (“Obstacles, Challenges, and Benefits of Online Group Psychotherapy,” Haim Weinberg, Ph.D., Am J Psychotherapy 2021; 74:83–88).

The group has been meeting once a week online for the past two years. Two of the participants had been in therapy with me prior to the pandemic. I had been seeing them in my clinic office for some time, so we knew each other well. Since therapeutic relationships had been developed, the transition to online therapy was fairly easy. The third member had never met me in person but had initially sought online individual sessions during the pandemic. A positive relationship had developed, and the client was comfortable with the online format. All members were excited about the idea of joining a group. 

Over the course of the past two years, this small group succeeded far above all expectations. The group members evolved into a caring group of online friends mutually supporting each other and sharing problems. Listening skills definitely improved. Good feelings about the group led to the three participants starting a WhatsApp group to increase their contact with each other. I was included in the group, but I chose to stay out of this interaction. The members were aware that I would read what they wrote to each other and, if need be, I would direct something back to the group. In addition to the group therapy, I was seeing each person individually online. 

As the COVID situation began to improve and everyone was vaccinated, the group members decided to meet socially and met at one of the member’s apartments. Finally, they got to meet each other in person, and they were very pleased. Over the course of the next year, the group members began to plan some day trips together, and friendships started to form. Even though all of the members had other social contacts, family, work colleagues, friends, they were hungry to increase what sociologist R.D. Putman called “social capital” (The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life. Am. Prospect 1993, 4, 35–42). 

Social capital refers to the links and bonds people form through friendships and acquaintances. These links can form through friendship groups, or they can occur through daily social interactions. For example, a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the bus is considered a link. Putman also emphasized the element of perceptions that people have of the quality of their social relationships. To have trust and confidence in one’s ability to make friends, and to feel liked was clearly one of the successful therapeutic goals of the group. 

The group continues to meet once a week. The members look forward to these meetings and the opportunity to share time with their new friendship group. Ultimately, the therapy goal is that this social-learning group experience will help each member develop confidence to expand his/her network of social relationships. Clearly, this has begun to happen.  

The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist and consultant with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. He also conducts sessions online.; [email protected]