Virtual meetings have helped support groups pivot over the past year due to the pandemic, and three groups in Denton County say these online platforms will stay due to high engagement and convenience.
As employers, organizations and even some friendly gatherings have moved online over the past year due to the pandemic, some local support groups have taken advantage of the technology and held virtual meetings – in some cases alongside in face-to-face meetings.
The Health Center for Healing and The Healing Place, both based in Argyle, offer a variety of support services for people with addiction, and The Healing Place also offers support groups and counseling for other issues that people can be confronted. Denton Bible Church has had an addiction peer support group through Grace Life Ministries International for the past 10 years.
Health had a head start as the center was already using Zoom for virtual online meetings before the pandemic, and The Healing Place quickly embraced the technology.
“Health has patients everywhere, especially in the Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma area,” said Andrew Ahles, the facility’s family therapist. “We had used Zoom before simply because we had family members [out of the area], so when the pandemic started brewing last March, in the family program, we pivoted to do everything in that environment. “
The Family Program is a weekly support group for friends and family – an environment in which a patient’s loved ones can help each other, learn about substance abuse, and learn conflict resolution. Health would organize one session per week in person and two online in the evening.
The Healing Place is a not-for-profit organization under the Cross Timbers Church that provides services free of charge. Director Brian Hackney has served the organization full-time for 15 years. He took on the role after realizing that even after Sunday services people were still struggling with their own issues Monday through Saturday, so he wanted to help.
“With midlife and isolation, anxiety is off the charts,” Hackney said. “We have several online support groups. We wanted to see how it went, and then we offered some in person anyway when they could be smaller and socially distant. And [the online platform] work. I know one group had people from three different states online – Texas, Tennessee, and Colorado. “
Hackney recently received certification as a mental health coach through the American Association for Christian Counseling. He said another 20 of his employees have either achieved certification or are still in training for it. Hackney said they walked alongside people seeking help, offered support groups on a variety of topics and referred to other professionals when needed.
“We started doing Facebook Lives, showcasing what we’re doing in The Healing Place,” Hackney said. “We have had so much commitment not only from church members but from across the country. … So we made Zoom calls. We see customers all day from anywhere and everywhere. … We have a client in Colorado and one in Taiwan.
Support groups through Cross Timbers started about 20 years ago with just premarital counseling followed by marriage counseling. Other groups have since come, including a bereavement support group and an addiction support group.
“Whenever we saw a need, we wanted to create a support group to meet it,” Hackney said. “And with addiction, when people are battling addiction, there’s a reason we all take drugs with any substance. We are trying to get to the root.
Meetings through Grace Life Ministries were conducted exclusively online as the Minister of Recovery, Ken Westfall, lives 70 miles away and was at risk for COVID-19.
“We lost people who wanted to meet in person,” Westfall said. “There are people who talk about wanting to go back to meetings in person, but I don’t know if we’re going to do that if we don’t have enough people to come. “
While Westfall said a few stopped attending his meetings after going online, he said they may have found other local groups to join. He still has six to 12 people joining the meetings each week.
“We’re doing Race Recovery, which is an old-fashioned recovery,” Westfall said. “From 1933 to 1939, Alcoholics Anonymous led with the Bible. If you look at the AA program, there are scriptures throughout the 12-step program.
The pandemic has also shown Ahles and Hackney that their patients are struggling.
“There were times when people would definitely talk about the stress of COVID and the stress of living in quarantine, and their surroundings made it harder to recover or brought to light issues in relationships that were more easily hidden when you ‘give up. at work, ”Ahles said.
Hackney said his staff have heard stories of people reverting to their old ways.
“People who were clean and sober started using again. We have heard this over and over again, ”he said. “People who had just weaned two bottles of wine a week for a drink [went back]. You can’t be alive and past a certain age right now and not have some kind of trauma. “
Hackney said when someone needs more support than The Healing Place can offer, they refer people to other facilities, including Health.
“When people say [to us], ‘Hey, you’re not an addiction specialist,’ well, no, ”he said. “We see these people, we walk alongside them as they receive assistance during rehabilitation. We know when to refer and when to report. … If ever it is beyond us, we refer.
Ahles and Hackney both said they prefer to meet people in person, but see the benefits of online sessions.
“I generally prefer it face to face, but in some ways I think people on Zoom and Virtual, they have more emotional space,” Ahles said. “It’s a little easier for them to open up about things because the family was not in the same room.”
Hackney said it was convenient for people as well.
“There are so many people going around the parking lot and left and never entered because of the anxiety,” he said. “It’s less intimidating to connect to Zoom and more convenient. There is no travel, no need to find babysitters. This made our input much more accessible.
Now, both organizations will continue to use Zoom even as the United States sees the number of COVID-19 cases decline and more Americans get vaccinated.
“We found that people really appreciated the flexibility” of the online sessions, Ahles said. “The fact that we already have these systems in place has really helped us. The engagement has remained really, really high. Last year was one of our busiest years in terms of sessions and people engagement. “
The Healing Place also saw an increase in sessions and engagement.
“Those who want to take off their masks and come meet, come on,” Hackney said. “And those who want to sit behind their computer [to join] … they can do it.
ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.