Every Wednesday before the COVID-19 pandemic, Robert used to hop in his car and attend an in-person peer support group at CMHA Ottawa. On the way, he would stop at Tim Hortons and pick up coffee for everyone to go with the home-baked goods Cathy would bring.
A peer support group is one in which people with lived experience with mental health and/or substance use issues get together to share in their recovery journey and all its associated struggles and opportunities. It is a space for participants to talk with others who have had similar challenges in a confidential and non-judgmental setting.
For many people, like Robert, the peer support groups offer an enriching sense of community.
“It’s a comfort zone to talk with people who have the same experiences,” he says, “and the peer support workers have gone through the same things, themselves, too.”
He says it’s difficult to find that sort of support among his friends, who have never experienced mental illness like he has (which includes hospitalization and receiving services from CMHA Ottawa before graduating to peer groups).
When the pandemic hit, the group facilitators had to move their offerings to a virtual platform. For Robert, 66, along with the others in his group, it meant he would have to adapt to new circumstances to enjoy the benefits of the peer support experience – a part of his recovery he views as essential.
“There was a rush to get us together at first,” Robert says, but now, more than a year later, they have stabilized and hit a good groove. “There’s a core group – it’s always good to see them – and newcomers come and go as well.”
According to Robert, the facilitators bring to their virtual groups the same warmth and empathy as before, when everything was in-person, but now they’re also serving as technical support (and very helpful tech support at that). When a newcomer experiences anxiety from the technological aspects involved in adopting the virtual platform, for example, Robert observes how Lars, a peer support worker, is always there to call them up on the phone and kindly walk that person through the steps.
Robert says the video chat technology they use is straightforward. Peer support groups use the CMHA Ottawa app on the OnCall Health virtual platform for their meetings. The platform is complies with Ontario’s Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIPA), and is secure.
OnCall is also used by CMHA workers for face-to-face virtual care with their clients one on one, and other group facilitators at CMHA for their offerings (concurrent disorders groups, dialectical behavioural therapy, etc.).
He says the simplicity of OnCall is paramount.
“It really is easy to work with,” he says. “Once you’re set up, it’s a matter of just checking your email and clicking through into the meeting room. It can’t be easier than that.”
However, for individuals experiencing high anxiety, certain tasks may be difficult. To those individuals, Robert says the challenge is worth it. His advice is to practice mindfulness and breathing exercises to calm down and reach out for assistance from a facilitator.
While he misses seeing his peers in person, it would be wrong to say that the shift to a virtual platform has been problematic. Robert no longer has to get in the car, drive to the CMHA Ottawa building and find a parking space. He can attend his peer support group meetings with the click of a button from the comfort of his own home. In addition, now he attends peer group meetings twice weekly, rather than just once a week.
He goes to the Tuesday drop-in (“general support”) and Wellness Wednesdays (“helpful, structured; topics hit close to home”). He used to attend the Thursday Peer Party (which is more informal than the other two groups, with games and activities – “good for relief,” he says) but has a conflicting virtual group meeting on Thursdays with PSO (“mindfulness and meditation”).
Robert chooses the latter because, as he says, he is an older gentleman and wishes to leave the fun and games for the younger folks in attendance. But if his PSO meeting didn’t conflict, he would be at the peer party.
Embracing the virtual approach to socializing is not limited to mental health peer groups for Robert. He also plays euchre with his friends online while chatting on Facebook Messenger. A key part of his recovery is keeping a busy schedule.
Now that we’re all growing accustomed to the new way of doing things, Robert is confident he would like to continue to participate in virtual groups in a post-COVID-19 world, even as the vaccine rollout gains momentum.
Fortunately, the virtual option for service recipients and peers won’t be going anywhere any time soon. Pandemic or not.