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The Need for Support Groups in Times of Tension

Interview with Dr. Jessica Smedley on the importance of support groups.

Jessica Smedley, used with permission
Source: Jessica Smedley, used with permission

Both COVID-19 and racial justice issues have caused a flood of experiences that have left people wrestling with complex emotions. Support groups are great opportunities to find the safety, space, and support needed to process these difficult times.

Dr. Jessica M. Smedley is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, practicing in the Washington, D.C. Metro area. She has a unique educational background, as she completed her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she studied her interests in trauma and spirituality in urban community settings. In addition to clinical practices of individual therapy and conducting assessments at local charter schools, she has been working in her consulting business (Smedley Psychological Services, LLC) providing trainings and seminars about self-care, mental health in the black church, and creating safe spaces for black women to process emotions and stressors. Dr. Smedley spends time engaged in leadership roles within the American Psychological Association, Association of Black Psychologists, and the DC Psychological Association, where she is invested in advancing the voices and needs of both professionals and members of the community who are people of color.

JA: How would you personally define support groups?

JS: I believe there are many ways one can define support groups. Support groups are an opportunity for members of the community to come together and experience support, validation, and hope through sharing a common experience. They are an intentional way to seek resilience and for pain or stress to feel "normalized." In some instances, it is important that there is a facilitator or a "space holder" who can help to set a healthy tone with balanced energy and boundaries for participants. It should also be understood that people participate and share upon feeling ready; everyone processes their emotions and pain at different paces.

Further, I think it is important to honor culture within the definition of support groups. Support groups should not necessarily be limited to professional mental health context, but also to many people’s cultural backgrounds. Sometimes support groups consist of people of a common ethnic group coming together to hear sage advice from an elder of the community or a religious group coming together to honor their religious deity.

JA: What are some ways support groups can help us live more resiliently during COVID-19?

JS: Now more than ever is a great time to talk about the importance of support groups. People have been experiencing symptoms of grief, trauma, anxiety, and depression as a result of COVID-19. People have been experiencing similar symptoms as conversations about anti-racism are on the rise. Whether you identify as a Black person or a non-Black person, the feelings many people are experiencing are complicated and support groups can help to sort through those feelings.

As a member of the DC Psychological Association, I have been co-leading a COVID-19 Task Force that, in our early stages, rolled out a series of support groups for members of the community. We found that our support groups that were catered towards individuals who live alone during this pandemic were highly sought out. We also found that support groups that focused on self-care and stress management were sought out. Those groups were helpful as they attracted people who were experiencing similar circumstances and allowed them to have a place to process their stressors while also identifying community and common ground.

During this pandemic, support groups have been essential for folks to feel like there is a collective experience, even though we have to remain physically distanced. Support groups have also been helpful for professionals during this time. For example, the recent increase in awareness of racism and its impact on Black U.S. residents has created an increased need for Black therapists to unite and create supportive spaces to process their unique experiences of living in a viral and racial pandemic, while balancing the reactions of their patients to COVID and racism as well.

JA: What are some ways people can access support groups amidst this pandemic?

JS: Specifically, within DCPA, our support groups have been published on our website, social media, and Eventbrite. They have been fairly easy to find lately due to our services being virtual since the pandemic began. Support groups can also be found by doing a simple online Google search, asking a healthcare and/or insurance provider, or asking your therapist if you are already engaged in treatment. Social media is often a relatively easy space to identify support groups as they are often published on the pages of mental health providers or associations.

JA: Any advice for how we might use support groups to help a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

JS: It can be challenging to figure out how to be supportive to people we love, as we know it is sometimes a delicate topic to point out someone’s issues to them. There are support groups that specifically are targeted for family members of people who may have a specific diagnosis; a popular example of that is Al-Anon. Sometimes support is needed for caregivers who are caring for someone else and need a balance of self-care and a sense of community in addition to education about what they are experiencing with their loved one. One example of this is support groups that exist for family members who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Support groups can be a great way to collaborate with others and learn healthy and effective skills for navigating a challenging situation.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

JS: I am continuing to see clients via telehealth, as people have continued to seek out support with anxiety and stressors about the pandemic and about racial stress and trauma. I continue providing trainings and seminars for organizations and the public about mental health and the importance of wellness and self-care, especially in communities of color. I continue my efforts with the DCPA Task Force as we organize and schedule groups/events for our members and the public about these challenging times. I will be organizing an effort with ABPsi to also begin providing supportive, healing groups for specific audiences with specific medical and emotional symptoms.

To find a support group near you, visit the Psychology Today Directory.


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