Out On The Couch
Teresa Theophano, LCSW
Are you navigating mental health challenges and seeking kindred spirits? Want some pointers on figuring out how to establish LGBTQ+ peer support in your community? Consider launching a DIY peer support group! Peer support groups entail regularly scheduled sessions in which people with lived experience of mental health conditions gather to discuss their experiences, wellbeing, and difficulties. The groups are generally facilitated by a peer who has received some training or is certified as a peer specialist, and they provide a wonderful opportunity for connection, support, and camaraderie. Here are six tips you might consider to help get you started.
In my previous article about forming a peer support network called the NYC Queer Mental Health Initiative (QMHI) several years ago, I described working with another organizer to get our project off the ground. I strongly recommend that you try partnering up with someone. This work is much easier to do in pairs or even trios! Approach someone you trust and, know that you can work well with. Discuss your ideas with this person: what do you envision for your group’s mission and goals? How often will it take place? Where are you thinking of holding it (see #2 below)? How long will group meetings last? Is there anyone you can approach for technical support such as best practices in leading support groups, guidance on managing conflict, and recruiting more volunteers? Partnership will make planning all of this much easier–even if you don’t agree on everything, you’ll be bringing your support group to fruition with someone who’s got your back. This kind of collaborative spirit is invaluable when you are launching a project near and dear to your heart.
2. Find a space
Find a space, such as an LGBTQ+ community center, to host and promote your peer support group. Our local center in Brooklyn was happy to do this for QMHI meetings at no charge; they simply asked us to circulate and return a sign-in sheet at each session–people didn’t have to sign their legal names if they didn’t want to–and have us listed in their events calendar. That way, QMHI could be considered one of their programs. And since the center receives funding to provide programs to the LGBTQ+ public, it all worked out well. That being said, if this doesn’t work in your geographic area, you might find that a Facebook-based support group may even suit your needs best. While, in my own experience, there has been no substitute for face-to-face discussion, I have found that making a Facebook group available and developing and posting group guidelines, and monitoring the group closely with a small team of administrators or moderators, can be very helpful in connecting with other peers, whether locally or long-distance.
If an affiliation with an LGBTQ+ center isn’t an option for you, look into free public spaces: libraries, parks (when weather permits), a community member’s living room. Or if you need to pay for a room rental, pass the hat at meetings and ask everyone who is able to chip in a few bucks. You might do this to cover the cost of snacks at meetings, too.
3. Know that it’s perfectly normal if your group’s meetings start out (very) small!
It will take time to get this off the ground. It took several months for QMHI to attract a number of participants who showed up each week. Be persistent and consistent with your outreach, stay engaged, and be patient. You may find after a while that you have a core group of regular attendees. You are providing an incredibly important service to people!
Speaking of outreach, what worked best for QMHI was talking our project up in LGBTQ+ Facebook groups and on other social media platforms. To do this, first make a Facebook page for your project and create an ongoing event invitation for your meetings, then share that invitation on every other LGBTQ+ Facebook group in your area. Kick it old school and post paper flyers at your local LGBTQ+ center, libraries, coffee shops, bookstores, etc. Send meeting information to local service providers, such as mental health clinics, psychosocial clubhouse programs, and any LGBTQ+ medical practices in your area.
5. Take a step back if and when you need to.
As peers, we have to be mindful of our own mental health and related needs. There are some days you might not be up to holding space for other people, answering inquiries about your project, or promoting and outreaching. It’s okay to pace yourself! And it’s okay to ask for help. It might be the case that you have someone like me in your community: an LGBTQ+ person who is both a peer and a mental health professional, and who is happy to advise or provide support around the items outlined in tip #1. It’s also a good idea to have rotating pairs of co-facilitators if possible. This way, there’s always a backup. In addition, you don’t have to hold the group on a weekly basis. Biweekly or monthly meetings are options too.
6. Use the tools that are freely available to you!
Check out resources for facilitating support groups. Here’s one example from Mental Health America’s Center for Peer Support. You might also take a look at the Icarus Project’s publications and handouts–I especially recommend this one, which provides concrete advice for starting groups. You’ll want to be mindful of taking an intersectional approach to your project, as having multiple marginalized identities will affect members of your group. None of us operate in a vacuum, after all, and leaders of support groups need to bear in mind how oppression they may not experience themselves can affect people who participate in peer support groups. It’s also important to be aware of the need to potentially address microaggressions, which are likely to come up in group settings.
Here’s hoping that you move forward with your own community-based peer support group in a spirit of mutual aid and great love. I have faith in you that you can do this, and I encourage you to tell your story to others who have been there, and let them tell you theirs. It’s crucial for all of us: queer stories save queer lives!
A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions – Mr. Nittle. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2019, from https://mrnittle.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/microagressions-kevin-nadal.pdf
Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality, More than Two Decades Later. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.law.columbia.edu/pt-br/news/2017/06/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality
Mccormack, C. E. (2007). Friends make the best medicine: A guide to creating community mental health. Place of publication not identified: Icarus Project.
Support Group Facilitation Guide – Mental Health Support. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2019, from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/sites/default/files/MHA Support Group Facilitation Guide 2016.pdf
What Clubhouses Do. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2019, from https://clubhouse-intl.org/what-we-do/what-clubhouses-do/