By Robert A. Poarch
Treating people with behavioral health issues is one of the most sensitive areas of healthcare. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions. That’s probably why the thought of a behavioral health group therapy program might seem awkward. The actual results from group therapy, however, are quite positive.
“Based on the evidence, group therapy can be very effective. Many patients report having made a significant amount of progress in 6-10 weeks and appear to respond equally well in a group setting,” said Karen Connor, LCSW, Program Coordinator for Outpatient Behavioral Health at Mission Hospital. “Overall, I think group members feel supported in a way that’s different than individual therapy. Patients feel connected to each other by their shared experiences that are similar, yet also very different.”
Connor should know, because she helps coordinate three group behavioral health programs at Mission Health: Intensive Outpatient Program, a co-ed group, Intensive Outpatient for Women, which focuses on trauma victims, and Partial Hospital Program, their most intensive outpatient offering.
Sharing Is Caring
Sharing with other individuals who are experiencing similar situations and who have similar histories is key to the group experience. “They listen and understand how other people are resolving problems. They also learn how by hearing other’s struggles or how situations were handled less effectively,” said Connor. “The biggest feedback we receive from patients is the support, the rapport and the compassion. They don’t feel judged. They walk away feeling more empowered with skills that involve better communication, mindfulness, skills to recognize emotional states of mind and understanding ways of thinking that can be improved to feel better. They have essential tools and specific skills to use.”
All of the Mission Behavioral Health classes are for adults only. The groups deal with issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma-related issues. The group sizes tend to be ten people or fewer.
A master-level therapist leads each group. Two of the programs are coed. The Intensive Outpatient for Women group is female only. People can self-refer, and referrals from therapists, psychiatrists and medical doctors are also accepted. A screening is done to make sure the program is a good fit for each participant.
Staying Safe during COVID-19
Right now, all of the programs are following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for protecting patients and staff from COVID-19. “Everyone is wearing masks, they’re getting their temperature taken daily, and we’re having people sit at the CDC recommended six feet apart,” said Connor. “We have a really large group room to spread out, and there are no more than ten in the room.”
For those uncomfortable coming into the hospital right now, or who live farther away and want to save gas, there is a telehealth option for attending the meetings. This is a workable solution for those who really need behavioral health services, but are not willing to take the risk.
For Intensive Outpatient Program and Intensive Outpatient for Women, there are two large screens in the group room for those who virtually attend the meeting. “There’s some individuals who are enjoying still being here live, whereas others are participating via virtual apparatus,” said Britt Peterson, MD, a Psychiatrist at Mission Hospital. “The folks virtually can view the group room and talk. So far it’s worked out really well.”
Taking a Risk
The sessions can be uncomfortable. “There are some things we talk about in behavioral health that are very personal and private,” said Connor. “But, I also think it’s very relieving to share, to get if off your chest, and receive feedback from others, and also to provide support to other group members. Once someone shares, receives support, and particularly support from someone who experienced the same thing, I hear it over and over from the patients, ‘I feel so much better after talking and just getting it out.’”
The strength of the program comes from the professional doctors with the expertise to help guide each group. “There’s a lot of stigma around behavioral health issues, although that’s gotten less of late,” said Dr. Peterson. “The only way to change is to ask for help, and to be able to take a risk. Being able to share your challenges with other people will help. I think a lot of our patients find this helpful and empowering.”
According to Dr. Peterson, one misconception about behavioral health is that doctors can solve these problems quickly. “I think that the work that we do here is the start of a long process to recovery for a lot of people. Or at least a way the tide could turn where recovery can happen,” he said. “If they can come in with both eyes open, I think that’s good because people can really grow.”
Stats Don’t Lie
When participants start one of these programs, they complete questionnaires. The information they provide is then used to quantify their progression through the program.
“The measures we quantify throughout a patient’s course of treatment here are depression screenings, anxiety, quality of life, post-traumatic stress disorder measures, which a majority of our patients have a history of trauma,” said Connor. “They gradually start grasping these psycho therapeutic skills and education, and they are slowly able to implement some change, and see some progress while they’re here. It’s like getting a good foundational platform to stand upon. From there, individuals can proceed with individual therapy if needed.”
According to the program’s measurements, it’s not surprising to see at least a 50 to 60 percent decrease in symptoms in some areas. “I think that we have some good evidence of helping people. It’s a significant impact for most of the people who come here. It can be a starting point for recovery,” said Dr. Peterson.
The Support Is Real
“The last day that I see them, I really do try to focus a little bit on the process that they went through, and really appreciate the change that has happened. But, also the road ahead and some of the ongoing issues that they still have to deal with,” said Dr. Peterson. “There really is something powerful to see someone on that last day when they leave and be able to reflect on them where they are compared to when they came in. That’s what makes the work rewarding and gives you some perspective at the end of the day.”
“What do I think about the program? The support is real. The encouragement is real, and…the skills work,” said Connor. “It’s a loving and caring atmosphere. Everyone provides a lot of support, and it’s nonjudgmental. We just embrace folks if they’re open and willing to take a chance or step in this direction.”
Karen Connor, LCSW, is the Program Coordinator for Outpatient Behavioral Health at Mission Hospital.
Britt Peterson, MD, is a Psychiatrist at Mission Hospital.