Social Therapy: History And Alternative Treatment

Updated February 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
This article was medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW and Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP

Social therapy is a non-medical treatment model often focused on individual roles within a social group. Developed in the 1970s, this model focused on a non-diagnostic approach to therapy. Those looking to understand social therapy may benefit from looking at its history and evidence-based treatment alternatives that may yield more effective results. 

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What is social therapy?

Philosopher and political activist Fred Newman developed social therapy in the 1970s to support clients from various backgrounds, regardless of diagnostic history. The modality intended to take a broad approach to treatment by focusing on social roles in groups.

Social therapy has been considered a “philosophical” or “cultural” treatment modality. For this reason, social therapy is not recommended for the treatment of mental illness or mental health challenges. 

In cases where one believes social therapy may be appropriate for treatment, it may be valuable to investigate evidence-based alternatives that have been extensively studied in academic and medical settings.  

Alternatives to social therapy 

Several alternatives to social therapy have been in practice for decades and shown to be effective by many peer-reviewed studies, including the following. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often considered the “gold standard” of talk therapy, as hundreds of studies have found it effective in treating mental illness and mental health challenges. The modality focuses on identifying thought patterns and beliefs that may have formed throughout life and could contribute to the severity of distressing symptoms or urges. It is based on the idea that changing thoughts and beliefs can change behavioral patterns. 

CBT doesn’t only focus on cognitive restructuring, however. CBT therapists may use various practices, including roleplay, worksheets, journaling prompts, desensitization, and other behavioral activities to support clients in meeting their goals. In CBT, the client is the leader of the sessions, and the therapist acts as a professional mentor and support system that can guide them in making positive steps toward these goals. 

CBT may function as a replacement for social therapy because it is evidence-based and effective. 69% of all therapists use CBT in some way in their practice, showcasing its popularity as a treatment tool. Although it might not be the most effective modality for every challenge, it is versatile and has been used since the 1950s. 

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) 

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was developed as a complement to CBT in the 1980s by Dr. Marsha Linehan. Dr. Linehan saw the benefit of creating a structured group approach to therapy based on her experiences throughout life as a person living with borderline personality disorder (BPD). The DBT workbook focuses on skills training, often taught in a classroom-like setting with a group of clients. 

The DBT Workbook by Dr. Linehan outlines four modules, including the following:

  • Mindfulness 
  • Emotional control
  • Interpersonal effectiveness
  • Distress tolerance 

In a DBT group, clients can learn skills from each module, taking home worksheets to complete outside of the group. During the session, the therapist teaches the skills to the group and may offer time for everyone to practice the skills together. For example, in the mindfulness unit, the clients may start by practicing labeling sensory experiences together. In the interpersonal effectiveness unit, the clients may practice setting boundaries and saying “no” to learn to use these skills in their personal lives. These exercises are structured and professional and are monitored by the therapist or therapists leading the sessions.  

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Group therapy 

Multiple modalities can be taught in a group format, including but not limited to CBT, DBT, interpersonal therapy, and narrative therapy. These modalities can offer similar benefits to socially focused therapy, allowing clients to connect with others facing similar challenges. 

According to a review of group therapy in the National Library of Medicine, group therapy is often an effective treatment for conditions like depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, this modality is not limited to any condition and can also be used to cope with challenges like chronic stress, chronic pain, addiction, or substance use disorders. 

In group therapy, a therapist may lead sessions by teaching skills, facilitating conversation, and helping clients meet their goals in a social setting. The social setting may allow clients to perceive that they are supported, understood, and cared for by other group members while maintaining a professional environment.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Interpersonal therapy (IPT) 

Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a structured modality developed to focus on social challenges, interpersonal relationships, and social behaviors. In this modality, the therapist helps the client discuss current relational conflicts, behaviors that may impact their relationships, life changes, loss, and difficulties sustaining connections. The therapist can help the client develop a treatment plan to improve relationships over 12 to 16 weeks of treatment. 

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IPT is often recommended to treat depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and mood disorders. However, anyone can work with a therapist on this modality. Although it takes a socially oriented approach to therapy, IPT differs from social therapy in that the provider acts as an expert in the treatment. IPT focuses on outside relationships and is often provided in an individual format. In addition, IPT has been shown to be effective in multiple systematic reviews. 

Modern support options 

Those looking to improve their relationships, cope with a mental illness, or improve behavioral challenges may benefit from seeking therapy. However, knowing where to find a therapist, what modality to pick, and how to start treatment can be challenging. In these cases, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp may offer convenience and flexibility. 

BetterHelp does not offer social therapy. However, when signing up for online therapy, you can get matched with a provider that practices CBT, DBT, IPT, and many other evidence-based modalities. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions based on your unique client needs. Online therapy follows ethical principles outlined by the APA and ACA and works with clients to offer effective support remotely. 

Research supports the effectiveness of internet-based interventions. One study examining the effectiveness of online CBT found that online therapy could be more effective than in-person therapy in symptom reduction, affordability, and increasing quality of life for clients. 

Takeaway

While there is a lack of widespread scientific research supporting social therapy, there are other therapeutic modalities that are supported by robust research, including but not limited to CBT, DBT, and group therapy. If you want to learn more about the therapeutic modalities available, consider contacting a licensed therapist online or in your area to get started. 

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