Casual-looking man with laptop, smiling and looking into the distance to the right, seated at a picnic bench in a coffee shop-minSo you’re wondering how to start a support group online.

In light of a global pandemic, it’s been challenging for people to get the help and support they need. Being separated, and feeling disconnected, especially when in the throes of a mental health breakdown, trauma healing or in the middle of therapy treatment, it’s easy to feel derailed. Getting further away from the path towards healing can set anyone on a downward spiral.

But there’s hope – and lots of it.

With support groups online, it’s totally possible for anyone anywhere to seek the help and guidance they need to get back on track towards a more stable way of living.

In this blog post, we’ll cover:

  • What Is An Online Support Group?
  • The Different Kinds Of Online Support Groups
  • The 3 Stages Of Facilitating
  • Different Group Formats
  • The 4 Things You Need To Launch Your Group
  • How To Create A Space Of Safety And Belonging
  • And more!

But first, let’s discuss what a support group is.

How To Facilitate A Support Group… And What Is It?

Living with cancer can feel like a huge weight on your chest. Suffering the unexpected death of a loved one or reliving PTSD flashbacks can all affect one’s quality of life.

A support group offers those living with hardship an outlet to see and be seen, a place where they can witness and bear witness to others going through a similar experience. A support group can be small and intimate or large and inclusive. The participants can be from a very specific, tight-knit community (women living with terminally-ill cancer or men with glioblastoma) or they can range from different communities and include anyone who wants to open up the conversation (cancer survivors, family members of cancer survivors, etc.).

Online support groups come in different shapes and sizes, and they can feel just like an in-person safe space, even online. They can be informal, put on, and or hosted by the members themselves. Conversely, a trained professional or facilitator can run the group.

Depending on the nature and topic, an online support group can be “open” (people can drop in at any time) or “closed” (there is a commitment and joining process involved). Some online support groups start out as an outlet to swap information and share words of encouragement, while others grow into mutual support communities where members go above and beyond to take care of each other offline; carpools, daycare, caregiving, moral support, etc. Some also become more about education and awareness, evolving into programs that educate the public and shine a light on the cause.

The bottom line is that everyone needs to feel emotionally safe and supported in whatever capacity you choose to meet. Instilling a sense of belonging and comfort begins with how you set up your support group online.

How to Facilitate A Support Group

In the beginning stages, it’s important to figure out the rough outline of how your online support group will be presented to your community. Do you want to partner with an organization or do you want to take this on yourself? Are you looking to incorporate professional support or is this more of a place to connect, share and open up about each other’s experiences?

Here are the three stages of setting up a proposal to start a support group online. Although not an exhaustive list, it’s a good beginning point when brainstorming how to put it together and to imagine what it will look like down the road:

STAGE 1 – Finding Help With Your Support Group Online

A support group meeting format can take shape a few different ways depending on how you want to reach out and connect with the group members. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of your online support group?
  • How specific is your group? Who can join?
  • Is it open to people from anywhere? Or localized?
  • What is the desired result of these virtual meetings?

Sunny bird’s-eye view of wooden desk with coffee cup, plants, and office supplies; two hands writing in notebook and video chatting on desktop computer-minOnce you’ve established the backbone of your online support group, at this stage, look to see what other groups are doing. Is there already an existing group in your geographic location? If there is, can you make yours more specific, or build on it?

Researching to see how other people meet up and connect will inspire your group and help you to model yours after a group that already has proven success. Plus, it establishes ties and strengthens the connection with other founders and members who might at least be able to point you in the right direction. It helps to ask how they got their groups started, what are some challenges they’ve had to overcome, what resources they used, and which resources might be beneficial for you.

Take a look at the following three group formats to see which one can serve as the best container for your online support group:

  • Curriculum-Based
    This helps to promote and educate group members about the topic they’re meeting about in the first place. Whether it’s for a specific mental health condition or any type of newly diagnosed condition, a curriculum-based approach helps people understand what they are grappling with from an educational perspective. Readings can be assigned then discussed upon in a video chat regarding those reading passages. You can offer practical and technical information as steps or “how-tos,” and so much more. This is an excellent opportunity to bring in speakers or people who have experience in this field to cover the topic in a remote online presentation.
  • Topic-Based
    Whether far in advance or as part of an agenda, group leaders can provide a weekly topic to be discussed and built upon. This could take form as a group effort or can be led by individual members. Each week can tackle a different subject within a larger context or conversation points can be led to spark sharing and connection within a given topic.
  • Open Forum
    This approach is more open-ended and has no predetermined structure. Discussion topics aren’t set in stone as the support group meeting takes on a more fluid flow to accommodate questions, random topics, sharings, and or lectures.

Also, take into consideration how you will reach out and make contact with the people who need to be in your support container the most. Set up a Facebook group, YouTube channel or create waves through social media channels like Instagram. Try creating your own website, visiting community centers and clinics, through word of mouth and meet-up events, either virtually or in-person.

STAGE 2 – Planning Your Support Group Online

Your support group held in an online space might seem a little disconnected if you’re used to meeting up in person. Once you get the knack of being in a virtual space, it’s easy to see how the pieces fall into place and how beneficial it can be for the participants involved.

Once the motivation is established, and you have a basic format planned out, choosing the right technology that positively impacts your online support group will bridge the gap between being online and being in person. Cohesion amongst participants, creating a safe and private virtual space, and providing instant access to emotional support are all made possible with two-way group communication technology.

Be on the lookout for comprehensive moderator controls and educational features like screen sharing, an online whiteboard, and high definition audio and video conferencing capabilities.

Other details to think about and decide with other group members is:

  • Timing and frequency of group meetings
  • Will it be permanent, drop-in or run for a specific amount of time?
  • Will there be group members? How many? Who will take over in the case of an emergency?

STAGE 3 – Starting Your Support Group Online

As your online support group gains traction and touches people’s lives, keep in mind the breadth and depth of your reach. Here are four things to do as you launch your online support group:

  • Run Your Online Support Group Online Punctually
    Help people feel safe and respected by creating a container that starts and ends on time. These healthy boundaries allow participants to feel like their own boundaries are respected and work to create fluidity and focus. Use the Time Zone Scheduler, SMS Notifications, or Invitations and Reminders features to keep everyone on track and updated on any potential schedule changes. Staying on time keeps everyone happy.
  • Share And Delegate Responsibilities
    Having a core crew of facilitators (whether 1-2 for smaller groups and upwards of 6 for larger groups) creates cohesion, consistency, and stability for everything else to follow suit. Stay in touch via Text Chat in an online meeting, or put together a small committee on the side that meets us separately for a monthly video conference to discuss meeting topics, the format for the year or any other concerns regarding the online support group.
  • Create A Mission Statement
    Establish your values, purpose, and core beliefs to breathe life into your group’s framework and code of conduct. No matter how your group evolves or grows to accommodate new people, this mission statement acts as an understanding of what the group is about and provides insight on what everyone can expect to get out of it. Make it brief, and focus on outcomes rather than intentions, methods or promises.
  • Black and white side angle of hands using laptop opened on person’s lap-minChoose A Name For Your Group
    This is the fun part, but must still be carefully thought of. The name should be direct and informative. Depending on the nature of your online support group, you might choose something more serious and forward-facing instead of clever and punny. The name of your group will inform potential members exactly who you are. The clearer it is, the better chance you have of attracting the people who can benefit from joining your group.

From finding help to planning to start your own support group online, video conferencing software is there to support you through all stages. You’ll need video-based technology to communicate with other like-minded people in the research phase. You’ll also need it when planning the format with co-founders, and you’ll definitely need it when you’re actually hosting the events and creating a virtual space that caters to your members.

A Few Housekeeping Rules

Just like with any support group, the key factors to a successful one are all based on creating a nurturing and safe environment. Even in an online space, it’s critical to maintain a level of professionalism that is inclusive, free from judgment and any other forms of negativity that could impact a participant’s journey to healing. Whether in a handbook or during orientation, use these four guiding stars to foster a space of compassion, safety, and belonging:

  • Establish Guidelines And Mention Them Frequently
    No matter the topic, emotional safety is of utmost importance. For participants, an online support group is an opportunity to be able to use their voice to share and speak out. Insist on creating timed responses and using moderator controls so each participant has a chance to share within an agreed-upon time constraint and without interruption.
  • Maintain Privacy And Confidentiality
    Drive home the idea that what is shared in this group stays in this group. Remind participants that recording is prohibited or if it is happening, everyone must consent.
  • Create A Nest Of Safety For Feelings
    Feelings come and go, and everyone’s are valid, however, if feelings arise from a space that is discriminatory or offensive, the session can quickly become problematic. Write and agree upon a zero-tolerance policy for hurtful sharings. Practice resourcing techniques and break out into smaller online groups for additional support if needed.
  • Respect Boundaries
    Everyone has physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual boundaries therefore respecting them in a group setting is critical to creating a space of group safety. Interrupting, and telling people how to react could be seen as “rescuing” or “coaching.” Use the Gallery and Speaker Spotlight modes to help other participants know exactly who is speaking while also providing a screen full of engaged participants who are listening and emoting with their faces and body language. Remember: Telling someone how to feel or what to think generally isn’t a helpful approach, unless someone wants it. At the end of the session, you can save some time for “problem” solving where people can throw out suggestions or share what works for them.

Even online, you can replicate the safety and sense of belonging people are looking for in a support group that’s affordable, easy to use and inclusive.

With FreeConference.com, bring together your community online by attracting people from all over to bond and heal in a safe and controlled virtual setting. Especially in light of trauma or life events that have impacted people’s sense of belonging and safety, a video conferencing solution that is reliable opens up the door to connection, an important part of everyone’s healing. Add Video Chat, conference calling and Speaker and Gallery Views to the structure of your online support group for a bonding and cathartic group experience.

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