Online Support for our Clients: Helpful or Hurtful?

Kimberly Morrow

Do you have clients that participate in online support groups for anxiety, depression, or whatever they might be struggling with? Do you wonder if this is a healthy source of support or a potential place for misinformation and misguided efforts to reassure your client? I facilitate two monthly support groups in my office: one for people who suffer from anxiety and one for people who suffer with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I had a large attendance at both groups this month which led to the conversation about the importance of getting support from others who know, first hand, what it’s like to suffer with the symptoms of these disorders.

I often start out explaining how facilitating these support groups is my favorite thing I do every month.  Experiencing the organic unfolding of each group is something to behold. The people attending are often tentative at first, wishing they had just stayed home and not challenged themselves to talk with people they may not know. Fairly quickly, though, someone begins to share their story which touches each person in the group, allowing people to feel safe enough to be authentically vulnerable.  Compassion is shared, tissues are passed, questions are asked, and challenges are put forth. I often find myself swept up into the beautiful place that is shared between the members. Sometimes I have to provide psycho education. Other times, I have encouraged someone to take a risk that they may not have otherwise. There are members of the group that have been coming for many years. They often keep things in check, redirecting when things go off course or sharing a story of waiting out an episode of anxiety, even when it felt impossible. Over time, people start to get well. They return and offer the same compassion they experienced when they were in the beginning of their treatment, uncertain that anything would help them live their lives fully again. This is the magic of support groups.

Recently, several of my clients have shared their experiences participating in online support groups. At first, I thought nothing could replicate what happens in my groups. However, they have found that it can be very helpful to have access to a support system at any time of the day, as often as they might need it.  As they learned evidenced based treatment in our session, they have found themselves sharing it with others in the online community. They have provided appropriate information to the group members and have brought some terrific resources back to me from the online community.

Of course, there are experiences where misinformation is shared and reassurance is given. I wonder if online support  is like most things I experience with technology:  there is good and bad. Maybe it is up to us, as clinicians to help our clients navigate these online support group sites. I have started getting online with my clients and looking at what a particular group offers. We have a list of online resources on the bulletin board in our waiting room, as well.

Just as exposures go, I start out resisting new things that I don’t understand and have not learned enough about. Then, as I start wading in, one toe at a time, my resistance quiets, my wise mind shows up and I am able find ways to help my clients develop healthy support systems.

Elizabeth and I would love to hear your experience of online support groups which we will post in our next newsletter.

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