Written by: Lauryn Feil
Reviewed by: Karl Chiang, PhD
Research shows that mental illnesses affect millions of Americans each year, yet, it’s estimated that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment. Limited access and high demand are two of several perceived barriers Americans’ are faced with when seeking mental health treatment.
The City of Austin, on a local level, is also facing a shortage of mental health services as a result of the high demand from the community. In response, UT Health Austin is thinking of new ways to serve larger populations of people through group therapy programs.
“Group therapy is a great use of our resources to meet our high demand. Right now we have a long waitlist and we want to be able to treat and help more people,” says psychologist Karl Chiang, PhD, of the Bipolar Disorders Center in the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences. “And for many patients, where it’s appropriate, group therapy can offer a lot of benefits.”
To start, mindfulness group therapy is being integrated into the 6-week bipolar disorder treatment program with hopes of offering more group therapy programs for other conditions in the near future including cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia that will be offered starting October 1 on a periodic basis.
“Specifically for people who have bipolar disorder, they may be faced with periods of elevated mood, like mania or hyper-mania, as well as low mood, like depression. Through mindfulness group therapy I can help them develop a relapse prevention plan so patients are more aware of their triggers and if they do notice symptoms of mania or depression returning they will have the tools to be in greater control of their responses to manage their symptoms safely and effectively,” says Dr. Chiang.
An added benefit of getting care through the Bipolar Disorders Center is that care can be quickly coordinated with other psychiatrists to consider adjusting medications if needed, which is often part of the relapse prevention plan.
While not as intense as individual therapy, group therapy offers several benefits to patients. Dr. Chiang explains that usually pretty early on he sees group cohesion develop where the members support each other through their challenges.
“I think what most people feel is that they are not alone in coping with their condition. They have a support system through this group therapy practice and they feel like they belong. There’s care-taking behavior that happens where people give each other advice, they sympathize with each other and my job really is to facilitate and make sure the environment is welcoming and open,” says Dr. Chiang.
A major benefit of group therapy is gaining a safe space to work through anything you may need support with and even-though there is less direct attention from a psychologist, the process can still be very individualized. Groups may discuss triggers or barriers they may be facing and each participant is given homework and tasked with applying what they have learned to their daily lives.
“We teach what is called non-judgmental or detached mindfulness here, where we bring awareness to the thoughts that pass through people’s minds. Through practice our hope is that patients are able to observe their thoughts without reacting to them, and choosing how to better respond to them. Research shows that mindfulness therapy reduces activation to the parts of the brain associated with the fight-or-flight responses and patients often feel less anxious as a result,” says Dr. Chiang.
The group program will further enhance the six-week bipolar disorder integrated treatment program where patients see a psychiatrist and a therapist one after the other in one place, dispensing the need to travel to other offices. Dr. Chiang is the psychologist leading group therapies here at UT Health Austin and he hopes to continue to offer more groups for a variety of conditions in the near future. “It’s evolving and exciting, we hope to get more groups going so we can treat a larger number of people, continue expanding our services and access to care,” he says.