On a normal Friday afternoon last semester, Michel walked into the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) waiting room, got a paper cone of cold water, and sat down near a door labeled the Community Room. There, a sheet of printer paper read: "RETURNING STUDENTS GROUP." Minutes later, her roommate Katey emerged from the room; while she was talking to the other students and therapists exiting, her eyes were scanning the space until they found Michel.
They briefly hugged before Michel and four others in the waiting area entered the Community Room. One of the therapists replaced the sign on the door: "IGG," it now read.
That spring, Michel was meeting with the Interpersonal Growth Group (IGG) at CAPS once a week. At the same time, Katey was trying out the Returning Students Group with others who had recently taken leaves of absence from school.
As first years, Michel and Katey agreed to become roommates for the next year; they were only acquaintances at the time, but the girl who Michel had originally planned to live with decided to room with others. That was the bud of a painful estrangement between Michel and that friend—but this isn’t that story. In the fall of sophomore year, Katey’s twin sisters got very sick. This isn’t their story. Katey began living in a constant whiplash between caretaking at home and studying at Penn, while Michel felt tangled in her leftover broken connections from her first year. This isn’t that story either. In the fall that should have been Katey’s junior year, with her sisters still alive, she finally had the chance to fold in upon herself like one of the thousand origami cranes she folded to ward off their death. That’s not the story. This is our story of co-healing.
CAPS currently offers over a dozen different therapy groups, but its website states that they fall under two basic categories: One type is issue-specific, like Returning Students Group. These groups focus on topics such as eating disorders, sexual assault, or graduate women’s issues. The other category is IGG, which “provide an opportunity to learn about how others experience your own style of relating, and to learn how that style may interfere with developing satisfying relationships.” Group therapy was offered to both Michel and Katey by their personal CAPS clinicians. As they explained, although each group has clinicians to guide discussion, they can’t “force” participants to share anything—in fact, research into therapy groups shows that participants can benefit through listening alone, even if they shy away from contributing.
IGG seemed like a good fit for Michel, her therapist said to her, because of her specific stressors: empty promises of catching up soon, hookup culture, the read receipts from peers chasing after lofty GPAs, and jobs. Maintaining a social life at Penn—or feeling like others Michel cared about weren’t reciprocating her effort—crushed her more than her pre–med requirements or any midterm. Her therapist said the most interesting moment of group therapy is when members’ real–life social habits emerge within the group, replicating a microcosm of concerns that the group can recognize, validate, and experiment with. For Katey, and for students returning to Penn in general, the premise is more specific: The jarring life experience of taking a leave and then diving back into school is understood best by other returning students. In an uncanny way, Katey’s and Michel’s combined experience with CAPS became a representative slice of what a therapy group can offer to a Penn student.
It is ironic to write about group therapy when, by contract, describing the most critical component of group therapy—the people themselves—is prohibited outside of that room. We can’t share their stories, but we can share the striking ways they healed us.
Katey was surprised to find herself signing up for group therapy at the end of her leave, blinking at how little time it took between registration and the first day she walked into the airless room with a circle of chairs. Then suddenly, jarringly, there she was with eight strangers. Walking through trauma was the single most isolating event of Katey’s life—but after late–night group chat texts, and lunch dates, and tearful conversations, she was no longer alone. The group shared med tips and survivor walkathons, class scheduling advice, and graduation woes. On dark days, being forced to understand other's stories reminds one what it means to be human; in believing that her group members could survive, suddenly it seemed more possible that she could, too.
While the Returning Students Group provided a support system outside of group, IGG’s interactions are contained within the walls of CAPS, as the group facilitators explained during the first IGG meeting. “We want the group to follow each others’ stories and grow together,” one said to the solemn circle of strangers. “That’s harder if members are socializing outside of sessions at different places and times, when not everyone can make it. So it is important that we keep our interactions in this building.” "It’s like a controlled lab experiment of real-life friendships," Michel thought as she and the other group members pruned in awkward silence under the room’s harsh fluorescent lights. Michel’s group was a quiet bunch who hesitated to share with each other at first. Still, Michel enjoyed giving encouragement and advice when someone disclosed information about their families, exes, or strained friendships.
But after weeks and weeks of group therapy, in which everyone had freely flowered and opened up about some personal issue except Michel, she had to confront her silence—she had to confront her neuroses that were holding her back not only in group, but in real life, too. She had to admit that after some disappointing relationships, she had grown jaded and afraid of being vulnerable. She was touched by her group’s concern and support when she eventually shared. Being in group therapy is a good reminder that, even in a group of strangers, one is still deserving of basic human empathy: Even though members of IGG were not permitted to socialize outside of meetings, they still cared about each other and felt close as a group.
Before seriously pursuing CAPS, we couldn’t even imagine a therapy group for “typical” college students. In the media, people who attend group therapy are always ill or seeking support for drug addiction. But what does “typical” even mean? You don’t need to go through trauma like Katey’s to need support. And you definitely don’t need to go through trauma to feel alone. In reality, every Penn student struggles, and every Penn student needs and deserves support. The only prerequisite for group is being human.
The story behind cute Instagram posts may be one of grieving sick sisters; before fun Friday nights there may be people sitting in far–off CAPS waiting rooms. This is the story of two roommates attending group therapy together, albeit in different groups. This is the story of pain and resilience, heartbreak and care.
Last year, when the actor Terry Crews visited Penn, he discussed attending group therapy and at first feeling repulsed, thinking: “This isn’t me.” But as he found more similarities in his fellow group members, he slowly began to realize: “This is me.” This encapsulates the struggle and ultimate reward of group therapy: finding common ground with others and thereby finding the strength to identify problems in yourself. To look into another’s soul is to look even deeper into oneself. No matter what pains you, we recommend the solace that other Penn students will grace you with, and we recommend the perspective and power of hearing other stories. A strong consideration of group therapy is a good place to start.