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Collective support can help in difficult times

What started as a real-time way to help people grappling with pandemic stress and racial injustice has become an increasingly important part of the Modern Health care plan. 

Just as reality of the global viral pandemic was setting in back in March, many psychologists sounded the alarm that a mental health pandemic was soon to follow. In real time, people were grappling with fear, layoffs, financial hardship, grief, new caregiving responsibilities, newly remote work, and more. At Modern Health, we deliver mental health care through employee benefits—but not everyone is an employee and not everyone has benefits. So as clinicians dedicated to improving mental health outcomes for as many people as possible, we quickly thought of those for whom mental health care is out of reach and brainstormed ways to help.

We decided to try an idea—offering free online group support sessions to the public. Following our principles of evidence-based care, we tapped licensed therapists from the Modern Health network to lead group support sessions on pandemic-pertinent topics like managing feelings of loneliness, handling financial stress, and keeping anxiety in check. In mid-March, Dr. Erica Simon led our first session and spoke about how to maintain healthy lifestyles amid pandemic stress—and we were blown away by the demand. “About 250 people joined that first session, which I just couldn’t believe,” said Dr. Simon. “The demand was there from the start and just continued to grow.” 

We increased the frequency of sessions and capped attendance to allow for more intimate interaction between participants. We added live mindfulness meditations, sometimes offering several each day. “We’re iterating over time and just responding to the need,” said Dr. Simon. “We’re learning what people are struggling with: Many have no idea how to set work boundaries. Parents feel like they’re falling apart. The biggest theme is that everyone is being so hard on themselves—so we really focus on helping people see themselves as enough during this really difficult time.” 

Our community support sessions caught the attention of Michael Vuong, clubhouse director at the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco in the Tenderloin. Vuong has always prioritized mental health for his employees, who run non-school programming for kids from some of the city’s most vulnerable families. We held an online group support session for frontline workers in the Tenderloin, including Vuong’s team, and he reflected on the value: “When my staff attended the session and heard that other people were feeling similar things, they realized they’re not alone,” he said. “That’s powerful for them. When they hear a doctor say, ‘there’s real reasons to give yourself a break and it’s okay to disconnect,’ that’s a critical message for my staff to hear during a really stressful time.” 

Then in May, when George Floyd was killed and the nation turned its attention to violence against Black Americans, we shifted the focus of our community sessions to addressing racial trauma. Our “healing circles” for members of the Black community are intimate, safe spaces to address the stress, anxiety, and pain experienced by members of the Black community, moderated by Black psychologists from the Modern Health network. Separately, we’re tackling anti-Black racism, racial privilege, and implicit bias head-on with healing circles for allies. The community need for this kind of programming is so great that we continue to offer healing circles well into the fall. (All sessions are free and open to the public and we encourage you to join.)

As we’ve iterated on and expanded our community support sessions throughout 2020, every topic has been designed and vetted by our clinical care team using evidence from peer-reviewed research. Says Dr. Simon: “While the sessions are not therapy themselves, the entire concept is rooted in evidence-based techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. We focus on skills and strategies to work through thoughts and feelings and we help participants take productive, concrete actions to cope with what remains.”

What began as a way to offer effective, evidence-based support for individuals without mental health benefits has become a new pursuit at Modern Health. We’re taking the virtual group support concept further in the next version of our care plan, and we can’t wait to tell you more. In the meantime, we continue to build upon the things people have told us they like best about the group support sessions: the intimate setting, discussing challenges with others, and concrete action items and takeaways. Stay tuned.

Julia Corcoran, PsyD

Julia Corcoran, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, board certified coach, and the director of clinical care at Modern Health.