Substance Abuse Treatment Group Therapy | Special Group Exercises & Activities

A Guide to Group Treatment for Substance Abuse

Group therapy is a common part of substance abuse treatment. Since addiction can be deeply alienating, group treatment puts the members of the group in a challenging situation, starts their reintegration, and aids them on the road to sobriety.

Group therapy can be a powerful instrument in the treatment of substance abuse because it shows sufferers that they are not alone in their struggles. The group provides users with comfort, guidance, and encouragement in overcoming their issues.

Types of Group Treatment for Substance Abuse

There are five models of group therapy that are usually used for the treatment of substance abuse. These therapeutic models differ based on several factors, such as the duration of treatment, the group’s aims, group leadership, session length, and strategies used.

The five frequently used models of group treatment are:1

  • Psychoeducational (didactic) groups: This type of group treatment teaches members about substance abuse. It is intended to raise awareness about the disorder and its adverse effects, provide information about the recovery process, and guide members toward sobriety.
  • Skills development groups: Members of these groups acquire practical coping skills that can help them become and remain sober. The skills may be closely connected to substance abuse, like combating urges or triggers, or more general, such as assertiveness.
  • Cognitive-behavioral groups: Cognitive-behavioral group therapy aims to change the learned behavioral patterns which contribute to addiction. Its goal is to alter these ingrained behaviors as well as the thoughts and beliefs that lead to substance abuse.
  • Support groups: Peer guidance, mutual acceptance, and interpersonal connections are at the core of this kind of treatment. Support groups create a nurturing environment in which communication and exchange can flourish.
  • Interpersonal process group psychotherapy: It’s a therapeutic approach that aims to bring about and sustain abstinence through monitoring and interpreting group dynamics. It focuses on interpersonal relationships within the group and how the group works as a whole.

substance abuse treatment group therapy

Benefits of Group Therapy for Substance Abuse in Different Phases of Recovery

Group therapy goes through several stages as the members move forward on the path to recovery:2

  • The early stages: When taking the first steps towards recovery, people may doubt their ability to complete treatment. Defensiveness, insecurity, and resistance to change are common in this phase. Groups can play a significant role in the early days by providing examples of successful recovery, sharing first-hand experiences, and creating a stimulating climate.
  • The middle stages: In the middle phase of treatment for substance abuse, the possibility of relapse is still high although the user has made significant progress. At this stage, group members offer each other ongoing support, reinforce group values, and help keep shared goals in sight.
  • The later stages: At this point, people are prepared to face deep-seated emotional issues and tackle other challenging aspects of their lives, which might have been affected by their addiction. Group therapy may help introduce important life changes such as reconnecting with family or improving career prospects.

Who Can Join Group Treatment for Substance Abuse?

Not every type of group is right for every person undergoing substance abuse treatment. Treatment professionals conduct careful assessments to determine the client’s individual requirements, recovery phase, motivation, and readiness to take part in group treatment.

The majority of individuals make progress in diverse groups composed of members of different ages, genders, and backgrounds. As long as the needs of the group’s members are compatible, they will likely benefit from the treatment.

Group therapy or some kinds of group therapy are not likely to be beneficial to individuals who:3

  • Reject treatment.
  • Have poor impulse control.
  • Cannot abide by group rules.
  • Feel extremely anxious in group settings.
  • Make the treatment professional extremely uneasy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Research suggests that group therapy offers a multitude of advantages as a treatment option for substance abuse.7 Some of the possible benefits of group treatment include the following:
    • Building bonds over a shared experience: The sense of isolation commonly caused by alcohol or drug addiction can be reduced by forming connections with people who understand what an individual is going through.
    • Providing guidance and education: Groups create the opportunity to learn from the experience of peers who have come further in substance abuse treatment and the client can identify with.
    • Reducing the sense of shame: Substance abuse is often accompanied by feelings of shame and worthlessness. Participation in group treatment enables drug users to share and communicate in a non-threatening environment.
    • Offering support and reinforcement: As motivation is positively affected by community support, having a network of people to rely on during difficult times propels people to continue with substance abuse treatment.8
    • Creating a sense of commitment: Group members often feel it is their duty to remain in treatment so as not to let their peers down. The longer people stay in treatment, the higher the chances of staying clean.9
    • Seeing things from different perspectives: Since group members will likely have different backgrounds, experiences, and characters, they can offer each other different viewpoints and coping strategies.
    • Realizing that recovery is possible: Witnessing the progress others are making is often inspiring and reassuring. In moments of self-doubt, others’ success proves that sobriety is attainable.

  • There are three common models of group therapy based on their focus.10 The focus of therapy will determine the activities during group treatment for substance abuse as well as the topics covered in substance abuse group therapy. The three possible group focuses are:
    • Individually focused groups: These types of group therapy pay most attention to the functioning of each group member as an individual, without delving into their interactions with the group. The therapist works with one client at a time while others observe and contribute with their insight.
    • Interpersonally focused groups: In these groups, members make progress by evaluating and assisting each other. The treatment professional provides only basic guidance and steers the group in the direction of empathy and understanding.
    • Group-as-a-whole focused groups: With this therapeutic approach, the treatment professional considers the group as a unit. This technique has limited application in the field of substance abuse treatment.

  • Group strategies change and evolve over the course of treatment. In the early stages of group treatment for substance abuse, it is crucial to experience the therapeutic factors of universality and hope.11 Universality enables group members to establish commonality and connection, while hope arises from witnessing others’ progress.In the middle phase of group therapy, it is important to retain motivation, the key to substance abuse behavior change.12 Clients are taught to identify and cope with negative feelings without using, by forming new habits and behavioral patterns.In the later stages of treatment, the client becomes stable enough to face harsh realities of life, such as emotional trauma and painful memories. The group facilitates the member to go forward and work on resolving their deep-rooted issues.

  • Didactic group therapy, also called psychoeducational therapy, is meant to educate group members about substance abuse. Its purpose is to increase awareness of the causes, symptoms, and consequences of addiction. It should also inspire clients to commit to recovery. Didactic group therapy tackles both issues of ego and life skills deficits.13The therapist most commonly acts as an instructor or educator. They often use the following procedures:
    • Effective, clear, and engaging presentation of information about substance abuse
    • Using audio and video materials to make the presentation more stimulating
    • Encouraging all members to take part and discuss the topics presented
    • Helping clients implement new information so that it improves their condition
    • Adjusting the information so that it is relevant to every group member


1. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2005). Substance Abuse Treatment: Group Therapy. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 41.HHS Publication No. (SMA) 15-3991. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

2. American Psychological Association. (2019). Psychotherapy: Understanding Group Therapy.

3. Weiss, Roger D. MD, Jaffee, William B. PhD, de Menil, Victoria P. BA, Cogley, Catherine B. BA. (2004).Group Therapy for Substance Use Disorders: What Do We Know?Harvard review of Psychiatry, 12 (6), 339-350.

4. American Psychiatric Association. (2017). What Is Addiction?

5. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (1999). Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Use Disorder Treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No 35.HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4212. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

6. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2004). What Is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4126. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

7. Thomas A. La Salvia, MA, MPH. (1993). Enhancing addiction treatment through psychoeducational groups. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 10 (5), 439-444.