APsaA's COVID-19 Advisory Team Peer Groups Beckon Colleagues from Near and Far

Brenda Bauer

Perhaps you've read the COVID-19 Advisory Team's helpful listserv content, or maybe even attended a Town Hall meeting sponsored by this group. Appointed without delay by Bill Glover and Kerry Sulkowicz not long after the pandemic took hold back in March 2020, the COVID-19 Advisory Team, co-chaired by Todd Essig and David Scharff, immediately went to work to discern the pressing needs of the APsaA membership at an historic time.

Todd and David worked in an advisory capacity with Bill and Kerry to determine the best ways to assist APsaA members who, like the rest of the world, were reeling from the sudden and frightening conditions that first gripped Wuhan, China, and then Western Europe. Before long, New York City and then pockets of the West Coast, Seattle, and San Francisco, as well as Colorado ski country, began reporting cases as the rest of the country seemed to vacillate between denial of, and fearful hyper-attunement to, what our country's fate would be.

Having served as board chair for the New York Disaster Counseling Coalition (NYDCC), which provided free mental health care to first responders and their families in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Todd approached the COVID-19 Advisory Team with an idea he was hatching about creating peer support groups for psychoanalytic clinicians, regardless of location or organizational affiliation. He and colleague Gillian Isaacs Russell had previously collaborated on a scholarly exploration of what technology offers psychoanalysts working on digital platforms. Todd brought Gillian onto the COVID-19 Advisory Team, and they quickly connected with Gennifer Lane Briggs, who volunteered early on to help shape outreach to clinicians struggling with various aspects of the “new normal.” They saw the need was urgent and immense. Do you remember how the rapidly evolving pandemic required us to lock down and immediately provide patient care via telephone and online platforms while working from home, taking care to not fall ill and caring for family or friends who did? Many clinicians (as well as patients) became de facto homeschool teachers when schools abruptly went virtual. A bewildering array of challenges and stresses confronted clinicians everywhere.

Todd, Gillian, Gennifer, and the rest of the team publicized an inclusive invitation to clinicians through the American Psychological Association (APA) Division 39, the American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work (AAPCSW), and other listservs sourced for the COVID-19 Advisory Team by Daniel Prezant, who later became a team co-chair. They built a master list of mental health organizations around the country. The only requirement for clinicians to take part in these peer groups was that they work in a psychodynamically informed framework; they didn't need to be APsaA members.

One goal was to develop, curate, and share emerging Covid-era information with the APsaA membership and peer groups outside of APsaA, since many were feeling isolated without colleagues to turn to as the practice and personal landscape quickly morphed from region to region. The thought was, as the pandemic increasingly took hold in more areas of the country, our information base would expand, thus allowing us to share information about Covid and various local responses by APsaA members. The COVID-19 Advisory Team is itself geographically diverse. Todd Essig practices in New York; co-chair David Scharff is in the Baltimore-D.C. area; Gillian Isaacs Russell practices in Boulder, Colo.; and Gennifer Lane Briggs practices in Miami. The team hailed from all over the country, the northeast, midwest, south, and western United States.

Peer Support Groups

The COVID-19 Advisory Team had been tasked to provide a “nimble response” to the raging pandemic by, in part, utilizing already-available APsaA resources. Todd quickly reached out to the membership for volunteers to serve as peer group facilitators. Our members stepped up. Armed with the necessary volunteers and aided by Tom Newman and APsaA staff, who were themselves rapidly adapting to remote work, Todd turned to the Eventbrite platform to set up an automated system to invite people to register for a peer group. Much to the delight of the entire advisory team, all 225 spots were taken within forty-eight hours of launching the site. This was a tonic for the organizers, who like everyone else, were reeling from the pandemic. They decided that, with demand so great, they would launch another invitation for peer groups. Once again, members stepped up to volunteer to be facilitators and, a few weeks later, another set of groups launched. They, too, would be fully subscribed within days. All told, thirty-five groups of approximately fifteen people each were ready to go, and a waiting list with dozens of other interested individuals was formed that could populate subsequent groups.

As most of us were just beginning to get our heads around what was happening in mid-March and early April 2020, many regions of the country reported rapidly rising Covid cases. By late spring, most regions of the United States were in some form of lockdown. The virus had spread along the eastern seaboard and into the mid-Atlantic, middle south, and the interior of the country. But community spirit was high, heroic even. There was a sense we were all in this together; let's applaud hospital workers at shift changes! And the approximately 500 peer group participants were settling into weekly group Zoom meetings that many described as a lifeline.

With the project launched, Todd, who also facilitated one of the groups, stepped back from an oversight role while Gillian and Gennifer took ownership. In addition to overseeing the peer group program and providing weekly consultation to group facilitators, they were also group facilitators, themselves. Gennifer expressed surprise about the degree of enthusiasm and need demonstrated by peer group attendees: “We assumed at the beginning that the peer group experience would last perhaps three to four months, and now here we are some twenty-four months later with most of the weekly groups still running. The response was simply beyond anything we could have imagined!” Gillian concurred, adding that the groups’ focus and intensity shifted markedly a few months into the work, perhaps in response to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and then, of course, in reaction to the George Floyd murder and the rise of the Black Lives Matters demonstrations over the summer of 2020. As Gillian noted, “The pandemic changed course with the advent of new, obvious social inequalities and exploding tensions between law enforcement and citizens no longer able to deny differences in how people of color were treated by police.” She said, “The peer group experiences mirrored that, changing from fear and fatigue in the opening weeks of the pandemic to shock and anger over the events that led to social upheaval brought on by the summer of protest.”

Gennifer and Gillian were careful to frame and conduct the groups as peer support groups, distinct from treatment groups or process groups. Naturally, the groups “processed” individual and collective experiences of the pandemic and social upheaval; however, they worked hard to make the groups a safe, supportive place for peers who sometimes had radically different experiences and held significantly different beliefs. Holding the frame was particularly difficult when more divisive, emotionally charged, and politically tinged issues arose between the summer of 2020 and the presidential election. According to Todd Essig, “No one imagined that social justice traumas and political tensions would need to be processed within groups set up to cope with the pandemic. Somehow Gillian and Gennifer found ways to support facilitators as they navigated the many and varied group responses to social upheaval amid the pandemic. Group facilitators adapted.” He says, “Their work was really remarkable.”

One goal was to develop, curate, and share emerging Covid-era information with the APsaA membership and peer groups outside of APsaA, since many were feeling isolated without colleagues to turn to as the practice and personal landscape quickly morphed from region to region.

Despite challenges in balancing the many trends and threads each group took up, group facilitators were ultimately heartened by the experience of ushering their professional peers through this amalgam of trauma and uncertainty. And they reported feeling personally changed and moved by the experience. Gennifer and Gillian express similar sentiments about their oversight of the group facilitators, and in charting their course from the early days of the pandemic through the summer of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. “The group facilitators have felt so gratified by their work, in helping their peers to absorb the shock, fear, and uncertainty of the opening weeks and months of the pandemic, and through the summer of 2020,” Gillian said. “Their experience situated our experience and felt so essential to getting through and coping with the ‘pandemic-plus’ and the 2020 presidential campaign. So much was afoot, and the peer groups kept us connected and ‘glued’ when so many things seemed to be falling apart.”

Gennifer added, “Over the summer and into this fall our groups were taking up the subject of re-entry into in-person clinical work and how to navigate this.” She said, “The groups were a tremendous resource for peers to sort out what their level of comfort was with returning to in-person work. Each group has a great diversity of experience in all sorts of ways, like their respective geographic regions, local trends in everything from degree of lockdown or not, and community standards of practice, how commonly people in their communities were wearing masks, socializing indoors, etc. So, these groups have been a wellspring of information and support, all delivered in a non-judgmental atmosphere across the many phases of the pandemic.”

Gennifer and Gillian have been particularly encouraged by the significant success in peer outreach. The majority of participants were not affiliated with APsaA or local APsaA institutes or societies, and the peer groups have changed materially the way non-affiliated clinicians view APsaA. “We have seen a sort of undoing of the past perceptions of what and who APsaA is through this outreach and immersion of so many clinicians who had heard of APsaA or perhaps attended an APsaA meeting. However, some came into the experience with great curiosity and perhaps some anxiety, since they had either heard APsaA was not a welcoming place, or maybe experienced it firsthand at a meeting or in some other way. So, to have these individuals come away with a positive experience such as this has been so wonderful,” added Gennifer. The COVID-19 peer consultation groups have been so successful that the APsaA membership department launched a new generation of peer groups to meet the need of APsaA members and other analysts for support over the winter of 2022.

One consequence of the pandemic is that overnight we all became disaster mental health responders, but often without specific training. To help bring everyone up to speed, Gillian and Gennifer shared with the peer groups information such as the work done by Jeffrey Taxman, a COVID-19 Advisory Team member from Milwaukee, discerning how community responses to disasters predictably change over time, and by Daniel Prezant, who created “Returning to In-Person Work During COVID-19” reports. Such content helped ground the peer groups in the best information we had during the course of the pandemic. Gillian noted, “The sense of danger has not fully faded and likely won't for a while. We are seeing that it takes quite a while to catch up mentally and behaviorally even with the rollout of vaccines and many people being fully vaccinated and some returning to in-person work at the office. Until the Covid surges are not so routine, we really won't feel a sense of safety like we did before the pandemic. We emerged from the immediate shock of the pandemic and the social and political upheaval rather changed, but there is still the sense that the danger is with us and will be for some time, and that tracks pretty clearly in the peer groups.”

Gennifer and Gillian, unfamiliar with each other prior to this experience, acknowledge that it now feels strange when they are not in touch, for example, when the peer groups don't meet for a few weeks over vacation. Gennifer commented, “From the beginning it has been comforting knowing that we have each other and have had a mutual sense of support, shared experience, and now a close friendship.” Gillian agreed: “It's been so difficult and yet so gratifying at the same time. We have felt so inspired by the facilitators who immediately volunteered to run groups at such a strange and terrifying time. Their commitment and friendship while we were weathering all these challenges together and seeing the peer groups tightly bound by support and friendship, almost platoon-like in their intensity, has deeply affected us.” APSAA

Editor's note: This article was written before the Omicron variant appeared in the U.S. and may not reflect the COVID-19 Advisory Team's most recent work. To stay up to date, join the team's listserv by sending an email to COVID-19-join@list.apsa.org.

Brenda Bauer, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst on the faculty of PANY-NYU in New York. She is a COVID-Advisory Team member.