Group Facilitator, Explains How Our Peer Support Groups Work
It is an honour and a privilege to work for an organisation as worthy as Doctors in Distress. It’s been two years now since I began facilitating support groups for the charity, so I wanted to write a short article to describe how the groups run and what makes them effective.

As a group facilitator, my task is to make the online groups welcoming and safe places, firstly by setting ground rules to build trust and safety. I go on to ensure that participants know that I have no contact with participants’ employers and do not give feedback to them. Confidentiality and the need to support one another in the group is emphasised. Although therapeutic, the groups are not therapy or counselling sessions as this requires a different contract or agreement for those services to be offered. The support provided is intended to be therapeutic without being formalised therapy.

I’ve run many face to face therapy groups over the years, and when I first came to run groups via Zoom or Teams, I wondered how well this would work. Colleagues had been working via social media platforms for some time, even before the pandemic necessitated distanced meetings. Reports on working in virtual groups were largely positive. There is a significant advantage in being able to offer sessions to people who may be based anywhere from Scotland to Cornwall or even abroad.

It is a different experience from face to face work, but it does seem to be just as effective. There is no necessity to travel miles to sit in the same room together which saves time, expense and pollution. There are also many more choices over which groups to join.

So, let’s look at the benefits to people from the medical profession coming together in support groups. Miraculous processes take place when people meet in groups. Once the safety parameters have been set, my task is to create a supportive space for people, offer interpretations, observations or a summary from time to time. I am a kind of witness to group events which ensures that people do experience being heard.

From the outset, participants are supporting each other although they may not be fully aware that, by doing this act of kindness, they are supporting themselves too. They are, in effect, being their own counsel as well as hearing the stories of other members in the group. It’s generally accepted that speaking things out rather than bottling them up does people good.

In his book The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (1970) Irvin Yalom describes the key curative factors in group processes. One of these is universality. People going through challenging times often feel bad about themselves; believing that they must be the only person who feels this way and therefore they must be ‘weak’ or lacking in some way. By taking part in support groups they find others who feel and think just as they do. This unravels negative self-talk of being uniquely weak or alone. There are other people in the same boat, so to speak. Another curative factor is hope. Groups like these encourage hope for the future and that’s something we all need isn’t it?

The group I’m running at the moment is a drop-in that runs for an hour each Wednesday. The membership can and does vary from session to session. Some people may attend only for a few sessions, by which time they have got everything they need from the group. Other people may stay for all the sessions spanning many weeks.

Some people prefer not to be seen, especially in the early stages, but they can still participate in the group through a blank screen with only their name revealed and they can still hear and be heard. Often people come to groups like these as a ‘last resort’ and when they are at ‘rock bottom’. They often say that they wish they had come along earlier had they known how helpful this support can be. It is rewarding to see how far people progress in a short time. The beginning of their recovery often begins before signing up to the group. The decision to join the group often shows they are already on the journey and marks a significant step forward in self-care and healing. So, the group reinforces the measures people are already taking and often speeds up the healing process.

Steve Dennis
Counsellor, Psychotherapist and Life Coach.

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