I’m a Therapist and I Tried Circles’ Support Groups

Is the group support app worth it?

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A therapy group having a discussion

Vladimir Vladimirov / Getty Images

I’m a psychotherapist who specializes in treating anxiety, depression, and trauma and has run various therapy groups. Beyond that, I am a Black woman who has navigated my own journey of healing and has engaged in various forms of therapy and support groups along the way. Holding space professionally for folks to heal their hurts together and engaging in the process of group therapy with those who can understand my experience has been greatly impactful in all areas of my life. 

I know firsthand how hard it can be to get help and I am glad online services are making mental health treatment more accessible. In my own journey, there was stigma, a lack of financial accessibility, and trouble finding providers who looked like me—but online therapy is pushing through these problems. This increased accessibility gives me hope that more will be able to get the help they need, when they need it.

However, I am also very critical of online therapy companies. I worry about how clients’ data can be compromised. I’ve heard first-hand horror stories of therapists lacking professionalism. And, above all, I know one bad experience can turn someone away from therapy forever. So, I’ve been on a journey of testing various online therapy platforms to see which services are truly worth it—and in my opinion, Circles is. Circles is an audio-only online support group platform that is free to use; offers tons of daily meetings led by mental health advocates, therapists, and experts; and fosters a sense of connection. Turns out, it is pretty great, but there are a few caveats to keep in mind. Here’s my experience with Circles.

What I Knew About Circles Before Signing Up

While reviewing and writing about online therapy companies in 2022, I was familiar with Circles as a support group platform that cost $79 per month. It offered video sessions on grief and loss and divorce and separation. Since my initial research, the company has undergone a massive change. It shifted to offering audio-only emotional support groups for free for a variety of issues, from sobriety to parenting to body image to chronic illness. It is rare to find quality emotional support services that are free, and lack of affordability deters many from seeking mental health care.

It is impressive to see the company shifted to a free model and gives me hope that others will consider following suit.

This format helps it make good on its mission to make support accessible to all and realizes connecting with others in a safe space can be deeply healing. 

Signing Up at Circles

To get started with Circles, you need to download the app, which is available for iOS and Android. Signing up is easy. I was first asked what brought me to seek out support. I was offered different options for concerns I might have, including emotional health, separation or divorce, narcissistic relationships, autism, and body image. 

Then, I was asked to share my first name, email address, and phone number. After that, I was asked to select the topics I was interested in exploring on the platform. I noticed that all of these options were the ones presented when I was asked what brought me to seek out support, so it felt a bit repetitive. I went ahead and selected the same topics. Then, I was done! Once I finished the sign-up process, I was in the app.

How the Circles App Works

The app itself has a very clean and minimalist design. I had the option to upload a photo of myself, which would show up in a small icon whenever I joined a group. I also liked that there was an option not to, which would facilitate anonymity. The app was essentially one continuous page that showed me the groups related to my interests that were currently happening as well as upcoming groups, and it also offered the opportunity to start my own group if I couldn’t find an existing group that suited my needs. While I had my eye on groups I’d like to join, specifically about childhood trauma and mental health and boundaries, I was curious what it would be like to jump into a session that was already running.

It was around 7:30 p.m. on a weekday and I dropped into a group focused on emotional wellness that had been running since 7 p.m. While the group facilitator was there, there were no other participants. The idea of jumping into a group that wasn’t quite a group was off-putting, so I hopped out of the group session immediately and decided to wait to join a group at the start.

This is something to keep in mind. While there are groups running throughout the day, some have lower attendance than others, and you can’t count on the same people attending groups each time. This might make it difficult for some to feel comfortable opening up and sharing in a group—being able to develop trust and acceptance in a consistent group of people is very different than talking to a new group of strangers every time.

Something that I didn’t like about the Circles app is that I couldn’t browse different facilitators. Instead, when looking at a group, I could click on the facilitator’s name and read their bio. I wish I could filter different facilitators by the topics they focus on and see upcoming groups they are running because just having the groups listed felt a bit impersonal.

The facilitator’s qualifications varied. Some were platform users who chose to start their own sessions. Others were mental health experts, advocates, and influencers. I noticed that some were referred to as a “Circles+ Facilitator.” The Circles+ Facilitators are mental health professionals vetted by the company—some are licensed therapists and others have certifications in mental health, grief, or divorce. That being said, I noticed there isn’t necessarily a difference in the types of groups run by Circles+ Facilitators. Regardless, I appreciated the variety and participated in two different groups, one facilitated by a mental health advocate who was referred to as a guide (which is Circles lingo for group facilitator) and the other by a clinical social worker who was a Circles+ Facilitator. I didn’t notice much of a difference in the quality of care between the guide and the Circles+ Facilitator.

My First Circles Session

After my brush with an empty Circles group, I reviewed which upcoming groups I wanted to join. The app has a schedule of upcoming groups with an option to set a reminder. I did so and received a reminder right when a group was starting.

I logged into a group titled “Childhood Trauma + Mental Health.” It was led by a guide who was a mental health advocate and motivational speaker. There were 15 participants in total and as soon as folks began to filter into the virtual room, the facilitator greeted each of us by name and we all had an opportunity to say hello. 

Each group has two different functions: an audio discussion and a group chat that is available to all members of the group throughout the session. I liked this option. Group experiences can be overwhelming and the option to chime in via chat rather than speaking is fantastic. 

The facilitator gave the group information on her background and set expectations for our time together. She explained that she’d speak about the topic at hand for the first half of the session and the second half would be open discussion. She reiterated that the group is a safe space to be vulnerable and connect with others. She was enthusiastic and warm as she shared about her own challenges with mental health and how childhood trauma impacted her as an adult. It almost felt like a motivational speech—which made sense, given her background. 

At one point, she began to share about the concept of forgiveness. This is where things felt a bit uncomfortable. She preached the importance of forgiving those who have harmed us, sharing an example of an interpersonal experience she had. While I do think this approach could work for some, it can be especially alienating for those who have been abused and do not wish to forgive their abusers. I felt my defenses go up at this point, but waited to see how the rest of the session would play out.

When it came time for discussion, I relaxed again. Everyone was warm, open, and honest. There was no trauma dumping—meaning, there were no extraneous details about abusive experiences, which can lead to re-traumatization. Instead, folks were sharing words of support. We talked about different trauma therapy modalities, like EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, an evidence-based treatment for trauma) and hypnotherapy, and shared book recommendations. Some shared about the abuse they survived and how their healing has given them hope. Others explored how forgiveness isn’t a goal for them, leading to civil dialogue about how we may all come to different conclusions about our abusers. 

All in all, I found the group to be supportive and helpful. 

I loved how convenient it was to join—since it is audio-only, free, and takes place on an app, there isn’t much excuse to not try a session out. Plus, even if you did decide a session wasn’t for you, you can simply leave without announcing your departure and try another one. 

My Second Circles Session

For my second Circles session, I hopped into a group called “A Space to Connect About Healthy Boundary Setting,” which was run by a Circles+ Facilitator. When I logged in, it was just me and two other participants. No facilitator was in the group and all was silent. I became confused and thought that my app might be glitching. I closed out of the app and then tried coming back in and saw that the facilitator still wasn’t there. I decided to chime in the chat and ask the other participants if a facilitator was supposed to join, explaining that I was new and this was my second session ever. Right as I sent the message, the facilitator joined. She apologized and explained that she needed to reinstall the app. 

She didn’t waste any time getting started, explaining that we will be learning about boundaries and how to set them in our lives. Allowing time for brief intros, some participants chimed in and shared that they’d been using the groups for a while, or that they had participated in a different session with the facilitator. 

Within a few minutes, 10 participants joined. The facilitator began by asking us what we know about boundaries. There was instant engagement among participants and I felt comfortable sharing how I view boundaries. From there, the session continued with her explaining different types of boundaries. 

I noticed that the structure of this session was different. It was equal parts educational and supportive. 

Between giving examples of how to set boundaries and navigate tricky situations, she invited each of us to share what we could relate to or struggle with. By the end of the session, I felt supported to know I wasn’t alone and appreciated the dialogue on boundary setting.

Pros & Cons

My experience with Circles was generally positive, but keep these pros and cons in mind if you're considering it.

  • Free

  • Easy to use

  • Many different groups

  • You can start your own group

  • Wide variety of group facilitators

  • Some groups have low attendance

  • Cannot search by facilitator

  • Audio-only format may not be a fit for everyone

Final Thoughts

I’m impressed with Circles’ offerings. Though there were a few clunky moments, like entering an empty Circle and a facilitator being tardy, I was honestly surprised that groups of this value were being offered for free. There were plenty of groups run by experts and clinicians, plus anyone who is feeling lonely can start their own session. Even if you don’t feel like participating in the group, simply listening can be supportive. 

The quality of care was solid and this service would be a great adjunct to individual psychotherapy with a clinician. Additionally, if you can’t afford any mental health support, this could be a good place to start. 

I’m confident in stating that Circles achieves its mission to make emotional support accessible to all. While I’m pleased with my experience, we also surveyed 105 Circles users on their experiences with the platform. It is worth noting that this data was gathered before it transitioned into a free, audio-only platform. 

Overall, 80% of users were pleased with their experience on the app. Seventy-seven percent felt their facilitator met most, if not all, of their needs, and 83% rated the qualifications of providers as good, very good, or excellent. Seventy percent of users would recommend Circles to a friend or someone like them. I’m right there with that majority: Give Circles a try. It is free, so there’s nothing to lose in trying—but you have a lot to gain. 

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Coombs NC, Meriwether WE, Caringi J, Newcomer SR. Barriers to healthcare access among U.S. adults with mental health challenges: A population-based study. SSM Popul Health. 2021;15:100847. doi:10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100847

  2. Cuijpers P, Veen SC van, Sijbrandij M, Yoder W, Cristea IA. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing for mental health problems: a systematic review and meta-analysisCogn Behav Ther. 2020;49(3):165-180. doi:10.1080/16506073.2019.1703801

By Julia Childs Heyl, MSW
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.

Edited by
Hannah Owens
Hannah Owens

Hannah Owens is the Mental Health/General Health Editor for performance marketing at Verywell. She is a licensed social worker with clinical experience in community mental health.

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Simone Scully

Simone is the health editorial director for performance marketing at Verywell. She has over a decade of experience as a professional journalist covering mental health, chronic conditions, medicine, and science.

Learn about our editorial process