“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

-C.S. Lewis

I’ve been noticing something that alarms me. In conversations with clients, and with other therapists, I’m beginning to learn how often we expect ourselves to operate autonomously, without any help from another human being.

I had the great fortune to meet with an international group of child, adolescent, and family mental health clinicians this week who are visiting the United States to learn about how therapists here approach their work. They are part of the International Visitors Leadership Program, an eighty-year old program designed to foster international learning, collaboration, and advancement in many different fields of work. We talked about our respective roles, treatment tools, and how we felt about that. I walked out of the meeting on air, realizing how the power of collaboration, creativity, and the sharing of ideas can be.

And, within this supportive, intelligent, and dynamic professional environment we all found that both of our countries had many similarities. Most startlingly, we found ourselves focusing on one stark reality: both the United States and South Korea are struggling with rising suicide rates. At first we cited statistics,  named certain vulnerable populations and our perception of our state and governmental responses. But we soon realized that each person was sharing an identical perspective: increased isolation, a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness, and increasing numbers of those living with unmet mental health needs and who may be self-medicating with an addiction is driving these numbers higher.

Isolation, loneliness, the feeling that you just don’t fit-so many of us live our days surrounded by others, but still feel emotionally separate. I hear teen clients say “If they knew the real me, they wouldn’t even come near me”. Or, “there’s no way I can tell them how I really feel because they would see how weak I am”. This is a pretty common experience, where you know people and they know you, but there isn’t that feeling of being seen, heard, and understood. Finding that group where you can be your Whole Self is sorely lacking for many people.

Research suggests that even simple efforts to challenge isolation and offer people support demonstrably increases for participants a sense of purpose and hope. It increases self acceptance-if someone else is going through the same thoughts and self judgment, then I’m not crazy, I’m like Them. It significantly increases our ability to be empathetic with others. And with this nurturing and encouragement, people who feel identified with a safe, predictable, and interconnected group are more likely to seek out resources in other areas of their lives. They recognize it feels good to be supported and they want more support. This shows that a small amount of effort in the area of social support is very powerful in restoring mental health.

I’ve been thinking about what it takes in order to establish these kinds of groups—where members feel like they fit and feel seen and understood.  I’ve taken a look at groups that have worked in this regard, and groups that haven’t.  I’ve reflected on groups that I’ve facilitated and groups that I am currently facilitating.

What works:

  • Commitment—everyone in the group must be committed to showing up—no matter what—for the long haul.
  • Common goal or interest—  theme/activity that supplies the underpinning for the group, i.e. art, holiday rituals, travel, books, knitting, writing, grief, weight loss, etc.
  • Courage—each group member has to have the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable with others.  Sometimes this comes naturally, and sometimes the group has to intentionally invite it through activities and conversations.
  • Compassion and Caring—the group must have a culture of compassion and good will to the others—even when there is conflict—in order to make the environment safe and inviting.
  • Concrete evidence—some kind of physical or tangible representation of what the group is about, i.e. logo, name, completed project, pictures, stories.

What doesn’t work:

  • Excessive story telling—there’s a difference between sharing and reporting.
  • Harboring resentment or negativity (addressing issues with compassion and courage can alleviate this)
  • Not following through—(the opposite of commitment)
  • False peace or faking it

The complete offering is still in the creative mill, but I do know it’s a place for teens- to learn how to recognize your emotions as a strength, how talking about this with others is a gift, and learn sure ways to get out of stuck places easily. It’s going to be awesome so stay tuned!


Photo credit: aleks-dahlberg-3cWA3U8xb5w-unsplash.jpg