Out On The Couch
Lessons Learned: Forming a Peer Support Group
It’s a given that finding affordable, accessible, LGBTQ-affirming mental health care can pose a serious challenge, especially if you live outside of a major metropolitan area. Even in New York City, where I live, many community members find that their care needs are not easily met. As queer and trans people living with mental health conditions, what can we do to ensure meaningful connections among each other? What are the most effective ways for us to share support and guidance with others who really “get it”? How can we best move forward to help each other cope and perhaps complement the mental health care we may receive from providers?
Advantages of peer support
Peer support can be invaluable in this regard. This entails people with lived experience of mental health conditions, also known as peers, showing up for one another in a formalized way. Peer support services have been lauded as “an established, maturing area of development and study, with great promise for the future of services to promote recovery” (Farkas & Boevink, 2018). Literature on peer services reflects that activities such as education and advocacy programs “promote hope, socialization, recovery, self-advocacy, development of natural supports, and maintenance of community living skills” (Chinman et al, 2014). All of these factors are essential for our well-being as people with multiple marginalized identities.
Creating your own peer support group
Forming a peer-led support group is one idea for taking a DIY approach to your own mental health. I put this idea into action myself back in the summer of 2014, and it was a meaningful experience. When an online group called Queer Mental Health sprang up on Facebook, I ended up joining forces with its administrator, another Brooklyn resident, to form the NYC Queer Mental Health Initiative (QMHI). Intended solely for peers, QMHI was an all-volunteer initiative that I hoped to model, to some extent, after Brooklyn Queer Support (BQS), an ad-hoc support group with which I was briefly involved in years prior. BQS had begun as a way for LGBTQ+ people in Brooklyn to show up for each other after the suicide of a community member. I attended the groups as a participant, then as a volunteer facilitator, and found them inestimable. People created a safer space where one had not previously existed, and the sense that we had one another’s backs was, for me, life-affirming.
With my fellow QMHI co-founder, I drew on and fleshed out BQS’ support group facilitation guidelines to help structure our new initiative, and soon a few people started to meet bi-weekly at the Brooklyn Community Pride Center for support group sessions. Initially I co-facilitated most of the sessions, drawing on my social work background that has helped me gain experience leading groups in other settings. Expanding on a list of therapists that had been compiled by BQS, my co-founder and I launched an online NYC-specific queer and trans mental health resource guide. It features information on not only psychotherapists and mental health programs, but also affordable medical care, local holistic practitioners, and several LGBTQ-affirmative psychiatrists. We supplemented our support group meetings with a free peer-led training on Wellness Recovery Action Plans to help our members make their wishes about their own mental health care known in writing.
Another community member recognized the need for support groups and meditation sessions geared specifically toward LGBTQ people of color, and soon launched QTPoC Mental Health. In 2015, QMHI and QTPoCMH joined together to produce a support group facilitation training for our volunteers, led by an experienced social worker affiliated with the social justice-oriented peer support network and educational resource the Icarus Project. In order to rent a space for the training, provide refreshments to attendees, and pay our trainer an honorarium, QMHI launched a small online fundraiser and promoted it tirelessly via social media, among friends and family, and simply via word of mouth; we were fortunate enough to meet our goal within a week.
Challenges of running a peer support group
One of the biggest challenges QMHI faced was staying afloat without a substantial volunteer base. At any given time we had just a few active volunteers taking on tasks, and ideally at least a dozen would have been on board. It was a time-consuming endeavor that required organizers and facilitators to have the “spoons” (or ability to complete tasks in light of chronic illness) to be able to take on tasks from arranging two facilitators to co-lead each meeting to creating and distributing event invitations to mediating effectively when microaggressions arose. Had I stayed part of QMHI, I would have worked on procuring more training and support for volunteers around these issues, especially the latter one. But I needed to take a step back within a year of launching QMHI to focus on another major project I’d had in the works.
My hope was that QMHI would sustain itself, attracting a rotating roster of volunteers. It’s true that a few people did put in a tremendous amount of work and keep the meetings running for about three years. As with BQS, gradually QMHI’s in-person groups ceased as the tasks became too much for just two or three committed volunteers to handle. But the feedback we got from group participants indicated that our work made a major difference in the wellbeing of our community. The fact that we figured out how to provide this service to each other and our community on a volunteer basis for as long as we did is tremendously encouraging. We continue to help the community through the online resource guide, which I continue to maintain and the Queer Mental Health Facebook group, which my QMHI co-founder still administers–and we can share the knowledge that our little crew of volunteers gained about how to go about forming peer support networks. I hope some of us will be able to operationalize an in-person group again soon! I think that partnering more closely with an established institution like one of the city’s LGBT community centers and receiving ongoing support, training, and perhaps supervision from one of their staff members would be helpful. We could also recruit more people who, like me, are providers or community organizers with lived experience of mental illness to volunteer. People with social work and organizing backgrounds can bring skills to a peer support group that will help sustain it. So can people with excellent administrative skill sets. In my next article, Six Tips for Starting an LGBTQ+ Peer Support Group in Your Community, I will list some concrete suggestions for starting a peer support network in your own community.
Learn more from Teresa Theophano, LCSW
Chinman, M., PhD, George, P., PhD, Dougherty, R. H., PhD, Daniels, A. S., Ed.D., Ghose, S. S., Ph.D., Swift, A., MSW, & Delphin-Rittmon, M. E., PhD. (2014, April 1). Peer Support Services for Individuals With Serious Mental Illnesses: Assessing the Evidence. Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ps.201300244
Farkas, M., & Boevink, W. (2018). Peer delivered services in mental health care in 2018: infancy or adolescence?. World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 17(2), 222–224. doi:10.1002/wps.20530
Miserandino, C. (2013, April 26). The Spoon Theory written by Christine Miserandino. Retrieved May 26, 2019, from https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/