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The Power of Virtual Group Therapy During a Time of Quarantine

By Scott Gleeson July 1, 2020

In our newfound world of physical distancing, the idea of six to eight people in a confined space might feel counterintuitive to the six-feet-apart mission we still find ourselves trekking in wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the power of a group is exactly what could provide a profound healing method for so many in times of intensified life anxieties and social isolation.

Mental health clinicians everywhere have been thrust into virtual counseling scenarios because of shelter-in-place restrictions, with telehealth numbers skyrocketing in March, April and May, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Although in-person individual sessions are poised to become more feasible this summer, physical distancing practices and safety precautions are likely to keep group therapy sessions at a minimum.

That’s where virtual group therapy can be essential.

As a facilitator for a small men’s group at a private practice in Downers Grove, Illinois, I was hesitant about virtual group sessions temporarily replacing our biweekly meetings back in mid-March. By now, even with FaceTime and Skype temporarily being deemed HIPAA-compliant, I am guessing that we all can relate to the technical and natural difficulties that can ensue with any virtual session.

Is the Wi-Fi spotty to the point that the client’s responses are delayed, leading to talking over each other? Is a client’s body language difficult to read on-screen, or are they tenser and more reluctant to open up? Is privacy a never-ending challenge? The task of organizing a successful group session over a virtual platform was certainly daunting to me.

Despite my apprehension, our first quarantined men’s group session was one of the best we have had in the nearly two years the group has been running. The reason? There was a true need to connect.

Our meetings are facilitated as an open group, and we recently welcomed a few new members virtually, but it takes the life of a closed group because of the culture of camaraderie. The men in our group are all going through something different, and we cover topics ranging from marriage and parental struggles to loss and relationship dynamics. The demographic makeup of the group is diverse, but because of the support the guys feel when sharing their current life stressors (sometimes in great depth), there is often a sense of inhabiting common ground. Once we got used to the Brady Bunch-looking setup of the virtual platform, we didn’t skip a beat in this regard. The synergy we had developed over time carried over to make the virtual group setting still feel organic and comforting.

Irvin Yalom has popularized 11 therapeutic principles for high-functioning groups, and among those key principles are universality and instillation of hope. In these emotionally turbulent times, the cohesiveness felt in group therapy can take on new meaning because of the umbrella of uncertainty we are living under. And the need to foster optimism during a global crisis has been catapulted to the forefront.

What follows is a look at three important ways virtual group therapy can bolster clients’ mental health during unprecedented challenges.

Addressing uncertainties: One ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the hit to the economy that left many workers jobless, furloughed or taking significant pay cuts. That’s where the power of catharsis comes in.

Throughout our group’s spring meetings, one common theme the guys shared was how discombobulated they felt by the uncertainty of everything, especially economically. Upon soliciting feedback, many group members shared that it was helpful simply to air out those feelings and connect with others universally.

Checking in on self-care: Quarantining drastically complicates the goal of maintaining proper self-care. The World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested a rise in depression as a result of routines and livelihoods being altered.

Of course, standard self-care practices for many men (going to the gym, drinking beers at a bar, playing contact-centric sports) quickly fell out of the picture as the pandemic escalated. That pushed our group members to get more innovative and imaginative.

One of our guys ramped up from-home workouts. Another started calling one new friend each day. Another started a Star Wars marathon. Another began virtual guitar lessons. Another started baking for the first time ever (desperate times indeed!). This is where the altruism offered by group becomes an emotional springboard. In sharing their strengths and creative ideas, each member’s self-esteem received a boost.

Creating much-needed positive connection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended connecting with others and “talking with people you trust” during times of quarantine. Participating in happy hour with co-workers over Zoom or hosting informal college reunions over Facebook Messenger can undoubtedly offer a great morale boost.

The difference between those types of meetups and a therapeutic group can be found in the layers of emotionality present. Raw feelings of “I miss my kids” or “Nothing I do is ever enough for my wife” take on a different tone in a group that fosters emotional processing vs. another round of drinks.

One important element to consider is the idea of connection provided by social media and how an overconsumption of that medium can actually be detrimental to well-being. That’s especially the case when it comes to ingesting news that often has negative headlines. The WHO recommends limiting news consumption and taking in at least one positive story each day. To honor that guidance, consider starting or ending virtual group meetings by having each group member share a positive story.

Every class I took for my online master’s program at Northwestern University’s Family Institute was over a virtual platform. So, in many ways, I was trained in a digital arena, with case conceptualization and role-plays constructed in Zoom breakout rooms. One of my biggest takeaways from that experience was how close I actually became with my classmates. We had met in person maybe once before graduation, yet there was a potent bond that was fostered through the intimacy of a computer screen.

I feel a similar sense of unity now in virtual counseling groups. In a day and age when physical touch is less plentiful, togetherness has never been more vital for all of us.

Scott Gleeson is a licensed professional counselor at DG Counseling in Downers Grove, Illinois, and Chicago. Contact him at scottmgleeson@gmail.com.

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