The global pandemic has dramatically changed nearly every aspect of our lives. From our daily interactions and routines, to how we stay connected to our communities and relationships. Loneliness, depression, fatigue, and anxiety are common feelings for millions. This is an essential time to find and build connections. One such way is starting a mental health support group to facilitate safe conversations and support within your congregation.

The church often plays a role in supporting the spiritual health of a congregation. As we know, spiritual health is connected to our emotional health and wellbeing. As faith leaders, there is an opportunity to use what you have in abundance at this moment—technology—to create a space to connect. One way that seems particularly in need is the creation of more mental health support groups.

Why Mental Health Support Groups are Beneficial 

Mental Health UK stresses the importance of a supportive community and a safe place to listen and be heard.

Support Groups provide an opportunity to make new connections with individuals who might not otherwise meet. When you create an online support group, you may end up connecting people from within and outside of your parish. The importance of the connection is the shared experience, not the geographic location.

Planning a Mental Health Support Group

Starting a support group will require you to create an atmosphere of respect even before the group begins. Delivering this atmosphere enables your participants to share openly and honestly. As the leader of the group, it is your job to model respect for everyone’s problems. The Anxiety and Depression Association provides great tips for starting a support group. 

Support Group Members hold signs that read Care, Optimism, Inspiration, and Love The Role of the Leader

A mental health support group leader maintains the structure of the group and keeps everyone in the group on topic. Similar to the role of a small group leader, the purpose is to guide but leave space for the individuals to share. 

As you are dealing with topics of mental health, you’ll want to gather information and external resources around mental health disorders or treatments. In this way you can support those who may suffer in a way that your support group alone cannot resolve. Here are a few mental health resources to consider:

NHS offers a full list of resources and support services. Similarly, if you find you need help during a mental health crisis or emergency, NHS urgent mental health helplines are available.

Find a Mental Health Advocate

If you are not sure you feel equipped to handle a mental health crisis, you could coordinate with a mental health advocate. This can be someone who takes on the role of group leader or a co-facilitator.  If you do not have someone who can fill this role, an organisation like Rethink is a great resources. Their volunteers help run more than 140 support groups in England.

The Participant’s Role

Participants should abide by certain ground rules that you establish. These ground rules help keep the atmosphere safe and supportive. You’ll want to include guidance on what you expect in terms of respect, discretion, and even honesty. This clears up any confusion around what to expect. Each participant should acknowledge and adhere to the ground rules to maintain their space in the group.

Here is a sample of guidelines and etiquette you can provide or modify for your support group participants:

  • Respect one other—exercise tolerance for experiences and opinions that are not your own. Participants should not judge others or look for opportunities to disagree
  • Listen—as a space for mutual support, please listen without interruption to each person who shares
  • Expect Confidentiality—keep the confidence of the stories that are shared in the group. Do not repeat any personal experiences outside of the group. 
  • Ensure Safety—the intention of this group is to provide a safe space to develop mutual trust and support.
  • Participation—each individual will have an opportunity to share and participate to the level at which they are comfortable and in a way that respects others.

Members who do not adhere to these guidelines may need to be removed for the overall health of the group.

The Size of the Group

You can determine an appropriate size of your mental health support group by two factors: the expected level of participation, and the goals of the group. A group for participation should be no larger than 15. This is necessary to accommodate enough time and space for each individual to participate or check in.

A larger group may be appropriate if you expect to host rotating speakers and events on topics of mental health rather than forming an intimate group.

How Frequently to Meet

Frequency will depend on the purpose of the group. If participants are regularly checking in and sharing their experiences, a weekly meeting is probably necessary.

Conversely, if you go the route of creating a more informational support group, with guest speakers, monthly meetings are likely more ideal. This gives you the lead time to recruit guest or key speakers.   

Plan to Meet Online

Online mental health support is growing in popularity. This makes your job as a group leader easier.

With the pandemic causing new waves of lockdowns, the consistency of online support can be especially helpful to those who are suffering from a lack of stability.

Once you’ve established your group, hosting at a consistent time and with a members-only secure login will put you on the right track to success. You can also offer a dial-in option for those who prefer to call or have poor internet connection.

While you may form some support group meetings in person, you want to be sure to follow NHS guidelines when considering any in-person event. 

Invite Your Online Community

With so many desiring to connect these days, the biggest hurdle you may have in forming your online support group is awareness. This is easily solved using the same tactics you use when speaking to your audience online. In addition to including your support group in your announcements, use your website, social media presences, and newsletter to gauge interest and collect sign ups. In the end, you may find you have enough interest to create more than one group!