Virtual meetings helped support groups pivot in the past year due to the pandemic, and three Denton County groups say those online platforms will remain because of high engagement and convenience.

As employers, organizations and even some friendly gatherings shifted online over the past year due to the pandemic, some local support groups took advantage of technology and held virtual meetings — in some cases alongside in-person meetings.

The Santé Center for Healing and The Healing Place, both based in Argyle, offer a variety of support for people dealing with addiction, and The Healing Place also has support groups and counseling for other problems people may be struggling with. Denton Bible Church has had an addiction peer support group through Grace Life Ministries International for the past 10 years.

Santé was ahead of the curve because the center was already using Zoom for online virtual meetings before the pandemic, and The Healing Place quickly caught on to the technology.

“Santé has patients all over, especially in the Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma area,” said Andrew Ahles, the facility’s family therapist. “We had already been utilizing Zoom simply because we had family members [out of the area], so when the pandemic started gearing up last March, in the family program, we pivoted to doing everything in that environment.”

The family program is a weekly friends and family support group — an environment for a patient’s loved ones to support each other, learn about addiction and learn conflict resolution. Santé would host one session weekly in person and two online in the evenings.

The Healing Place is a nonprofit under Cross Timbers Church that offers services for free. The director, Brian Hackney, has had his full-time role at the organization for the past 15 years. He took on the role after realizing that even after Sunday services, people were still dealing with their own problems Monday through Saturday, so he wanted to help.

“With quarantine and isolation, anxiety is off the charts,” Hackney said. “We offer several support groups online. We wanted to see how it went, and then we still offered some in-person when they could be smaller and socially distanced. And [the online platform] worked. I know one group had people from three different states online — Texas, Tennessee and Colorado.”

Hackney recently received a mental health coach certification through the American Association for Christian Counseling. He said 20 more of his staffers have either completed certification or are still training for it. Hackney said they walk alongside people seeking help, offer support groups for a variety of topics and refer out to other professionals when needed.

“We started doing Facebook Lives, highlighting what we do in The Healing Place,” Hackney said. “We had so much engagement not only from people in the church but around the country. … So we did Zoom calls. We’re seeing clients all day long from anywhere and everywhere. … We have one client in Colorado and one in Taiwan.”

The support groups through Cross Timbers started off about 20 years ago with just premarital counseling followed by marriage counseling. Other groups that have come since then include a grief support group and addiction support group.

“Whenever we saw a need, we wanted to start a support group to help with that,” Hackney said. “And with addiction, when people come in struggling with addiction, there’s a reason we’re all medicating with whatever substance. We try to get to the root.”

Meetings through Grace Life Ministries went exclusively online as the recovery minister, Ken Westfall, lives 70 miles away and was a person at risk for COVID-19.

“We lost some people that wanted to meet in person,” Westfall said. “There’s people talking about wanting to go back to meeting in person, but I don’t know if we’re going to do that if we don’t have enough people to come.”

While Westfall said a few did stop attending his meetings after they shifted online, he said they may have found other local groups to join. He still has anywhere from six to 12 people joining meetings every week.

“We do Race Recovery, which is old-school recovery,” Westfall said. “From 1933 and 1939, Alcoholics Anonymous conducted with the Bible. If you look at the AA program, there’s pieces of Scripture throughout the 12-step program.”

The pandemic also showed Ahles and Hackney their patients were struggling.

“There were times where people would definitely talk about the stress of COVID and the stress of quarantine life, and their environment made it more difficult to be in recovery, or brought to light problems in relationships that used to be more easily hidden when you’re off at work,” Ahles said.

Hackney said his staff heard stories of people sliding back into old habits.

“People who had been clean and sober started using again. We heard that over and over,” he said. “People who had just weaned off two bottles of wine per week to one glass [went back]. You can’t be alive and past a certain age right now and not have some kind of trauma.”

Hackney said when someone needs more support than The Healing Place can offer, they refer people to other facilities, including Santé.

“When people say [to us], ‘Hey, you’re not an addiction specialist,’ well, no,” he said. “We see those people, we walk alongside them as they get help through rehab. We know when to refer and when to report. … If it ever gets over our heads, we refer out.”

Both Ahles and Hackney said they prefer meeting with people in person but see the benefits of online sessions.

“I generally prefer face to face, but in some ways I think people over Zoom and virtual, they have more emotional space,” Ahles said. “It’s a little bit easier for them to open up about things because family wasn’t in the same room.”

Hackney said it’s also convenient for people.

“There’s so many people who circle the parking lot and left and never came in because of anxiety,” he said. “It’s less daunting to log into Zoom and more convenient. There’s no travel, no need to find babysitters. It’s made our intake a lot more accessible.”

Now, both organizations will keep using Zoom even as the U.S. sees decreasing COVID-19 case numbers and more Americans get vaccinated.

“We found that people really appreciated the flexibility” with online sessions, Ahles said. “It really helped us that we had those systems already in place. Engagement remained really, really high. Last year was one of our busiest years ever in terms of sessions and people engaging.”

The Healing Place also saw an increase in sessions and engagement.

“The ones who want to take off their mask and come meet, come on,” Hackney said. “And the ones that want to sit behind their computer [to join] ... they can do that.”

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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