Support groups grapple with social distance and isolation

As mental health services and addiction recovery groups move online, a resilient community adapts to COVID-19.

 

On Saturday, March 14, Gloria* went to a coffee shop in Seattle, the first city in the United States to be hit by a major outbreak of COVID-19. She sanitized her hands a few times while she was there and kept her distance from the dozen or so people who were there. Even as health officials emphasized the need for social distancing and banned indoor seating at restaurants and bars throughout the state the next night, Gloria felt she needed to be at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting she was hosting.

“There’s a balance between saving your own life from addiction and the risk to other people from the (COVID-19) disease,” said Gloria, who is in her 40s and eight years sober, from her home in Seattle. With increasingly strict prohibitions on public gatherings, including at many of the spaces AA groups meet, Gloria is reconsidering that balance, trying to find ways to connect without spreading germs. Still, she worries that some people won’t be able to find the groups they need as distancing measures advance. “If people don’t have (recovery groups), they may drink themselves to death.” 

Social distancing is necessary if we hope to slow the spread of COVID-19. But it poses unique challenges for people who rely on making personal connections in group settings. Now, many are having their routines and services disrupted. Some have been able to adapt quickly by moving online for support and treatment. But for those who lack internet access or have trouble using technology, isolation poses additional challenges. As the spread of coronavirus pulls people physically apart, making connections becomes harder. Meanwhile, with anxiety over the pandemic growing, people in the mental health and addiction community are wrestling with ways to stay connected without spreading the virus.

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Photo illustration by Luna Anna Archey/HCN, Images by Shutterstock

As the outbreak worsened, AA groups from across Seattle came together to chart a new course, seeking ways to keep their groups alive while limiting personal interactions. Lily* met remotely via a Zoom video call with the Greater Seattle AA Intergroup, which helps organize local meetings, to discuss how to keep the recovery community intact. For Lily, who called me from her home in Seattle, the move to online meetings takes her back to when she first attended AA meetings a decade ago. Back in 2011, online chat boards were an important and even more anonymous way to connect.

Meeting up online helped her feel like she had even more freedom to express herself. “Alcoholism is a very isolating disease,” she said. “I get really triggered because I remember how it felt to be by myself.” Since her last in-person AA meeting in early March, Lily has started an online meeting and is attending more groups than usual. Being able to meet more frequently online has helped her stay connected even as she hunkers down at home.

In Spokane, on the other side of the state, family and peer-support groups for people living with mental illness are being postponed. That increases the waiting time for anyone hoping to connect with peer and support groups and creates additional obstacles for people looking for resources, said Laree Shanda, executive director of the Spokane chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, a nonprofit advocacy and educational organization. Right now, staff and peer-support volunteers are being told to stay home, and their helpline is taking messages and calling back rather than fielding calls as they come in. 

Shanda believes the mental health community has important lessons to share with everyone currently on edge from the outbreak. “Right now, the fact is that the entire community needs to cope” with the stress, she said. She said she hopes that the pandemic’s public and mental health challenges might help others better understand the struggles of those who have battled mental illness — perhaps by helping them recognize that it’s OK to acknowledge such challenges and seek out help and community to build resilience. Shanda said it was important for people with mental health issues to connect with others who have shared those challenges. “We see it every day: people who are experiencing mental health issues may relate better to people with lived experience.” 

“Right now, the fact is that the entire community needs to cope”

People who have had to work through mental health and addiction issues can also have a more intuitive understanding of the type of conversations that help everyone cope with isolation and anxiety, said Jonathan Kanter, the director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at University of Washington. It doesn’t help to argue about the government’s response to the pandemic or hash out news and facts about the virus, he said. “Now is an important time to reach out and connect,” Kanter said, “to talk about how we really feel.” 

“For many in recovery, groups are such an important way to stay stable,” he said. People who aren’t used to being vulnerable and offering support to people in hard times may lack the coping mechanisms needed to deal with the challenges this outbreak is creating. “We can learn from people who’ve struggled, because the yearning for connection is something they’re familiar with.”

Tools are being put in place to connect people with services and move recovery and therapy communities online, but some find the risk of not showing up in person is just too great. Bruce*, a Seattle transplant from Minneapolis and a strict AA adherent for 18 years, will keep going to groups in case someone shows up. Following similar orders in Oregon and California, Washington is instituting a stay at home order Wednesday, March 25. Venues for group meetings will be closed, but mental health workers will still be allowed to do their essential work.

Last Thursday, after the church he attends closed its doors to the public and the recovery meeting went online, Bruce sat outside, waiting in case someone came looking for a meeting. “Even if it’s just me, I’m going to show up to make sure there’s at least one person there,” he said. “AA is the most important thing in my life today,” Bruce said. “If someone is in crisis, I want them to be able to talk face-to-face.”

*Some names in this story have been changed to preserve people’s anonymity.

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor 

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