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Taking peer support online helped one nonprofit expand its approach to recovery

Wellness in the Woods’ Virtual Peer Support Network offers daylong programmed Zoom meetings, giving people with mental health and addiction issues the ability to meet with others to promote wellness and discuss challenges they face.

Peer support staff at Wellness in the Woods' virtual peer support network
Peer support staff at Wellness in the Woods' virtual peer support network (VPSN) include, from left to right, top row: Sara Danielson, VPSN facilitator; Amy Conant, VPSN manager; Amber Dahlman, VPSN facilitator; middle row: Jaim'ee Bolte, VPSN facilitator; Patricia Elsaas, VPSN facilitator; Mary Jeanne Bruns, VPSN facilitator; bottom row: Rick Powell, VPSN facilitator; Ben Ramsey, VPSN assistant manager; and Robyn Siliznoff, VPSN facilitator.
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A year ago, Jode Freyholtz-London knew that something big needed to happen if she wanted Wellness in the Woods (WITW), her Todd County-based nonprofit providing support and training for people with mental illness and addiction, to continue serving the community.

COVID-19 had hit Minnesota, and mental health providers around the state were scrambling to figure out how to safely stay in business. A central part of WITW is providing peer support  — trained people with lived experience with addiction and mental illness. They  provide in-person support and conversation with others facing similar issues. With stringent rules about social distancing going into effect statewide, Freyholtz-London, WITW’s executive director, knew that she and her staff were going to have to completely redesign the way they approached peer support. She also knew it had to happen fast.

“The only way to make this work was to take everything we were doing and move it online,” Freyholtz-London said. Peer support works because it is in-person and personalized, but, she figured, desperate times called for desperate measures.

Though she wasn’t sure how the agency’s clients — or her staff and funders, for that matter — would adjust to the change, Freyholtz-London decided the only way to keep WITW going was to take the bulk of its programming online.

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“I wasn’t sure how it would look,” Freyholtz-London said. “Nobody else was doing this, but I knew that the only option for us was to give it a try.”

She sent Amy Conant, WITW program manager, a last-ditch email, with a rough outline of her idea. “Amy had been doing in-person stuff for us,” Freyholtz-London said. “She was good at it. Then COVID came and I asked her, ‘Can you set this up in five days?’”

Jode Freyholtz-London
To Freyholtz-London’s mind, the request wasn’t as outrageous as it sounded. “Amy’s background is as a professional chef,” she explained. “I know she can do a lot of things at one time. So I thought she could do this, and I was right. She got the whole thing done in five days.”

This trusting, encouraging approach is the way Freyholtz-London runs WITW, Conant said. The fact that her boss believed in her abilities helped build her own confidence.

“I was a year sober when I started working for WITW. Jode saw my potential to start the virtual program. I wasn’t sure that I could do this, but she believed in me, gave me the opportunity to try it and the ability to grow.”

At the end of the five stressful days, Conant had created Virtual Peer Support Network (VPSN), daylong programmed Zoom meetings offering opportunities for people with mental health and addiction issues to meet with others to promote wellness and discuss the challenges they face. All VPSN meetings are hosted by trained peer support specialists and are open to participants between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. seven days a week. During the overnight hours, when VPSN isn’t available, the nonprofit runs a telephone Peer Support Connection MN Warmline from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m.

Getting the virtual peer support network up and running was, Conant said, “exciting. I love a challenge, and I’m glad that peer specialists like me are able to grow within this organization. It was a huge growth opportunity for me as a peer specialist and it was also a huge growth opportunity in my own recovery.”

A ‘laid back’ option

In the past, peer support specialists met one-on-one with their clients in their homes, in coffee shops or outside on walks. The new VPSN takes a different approach by creating an open-ended group meeting where anyone can attend for as much time as they’d like.

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The feel of the daily VPSN meetings is relaxed, with participants checking in and contributing at their own pace. The peer support specialists in charge of the meetings lead the discussion and keep things on track.

“It’s actually very laid back,” Conant explained. Though participants are welcome to come and go as they please, she added, “There’s some structure to the sessions. We do a check-in, a meditation, a discussion. We have a highlighted activity or guest speaker. We also do games and activities.” The monthly VPSN calendar is posted on WITW’s website and on the group’s Facebook page.

Accessing VPSN is easy. Conant created an icon on WITW’s webpage that leads directly to the meeting. While the conversation and activities offered are focused on mental health and addiction, group leaders do not require participants to go into detail about their own stories.

“We don’t ask people to identify their issues,” Conant said. The program’s goal is to provide support for anyone going through tough times. “We want to reach people with mental health challenges,” she explained. “That’s what’s the funding is for. But we don’t turn people away. Everyone needs help these days. If someone logs on and they’re depressed or having anxiety, they can just come and hang out with us. We don’t call on everybody and say, ‘Do you have a diagnosis?’ That’s not the way it works.”

These days, Amber Dahlman works as a VPSN facilitator, but less than a year ago she was group participant.

“When VPSN started back on April 1, I was struggling quite a bit,” Dahlman explained. “I joined in the meetings and got to know people there.” She discovered that she liked the online format of the meetings and started attending almost every day. Eventually Freyholtz-London started encouraging her to join her staff.

“Jode said,” Dahlman recalled, “’You should work with us.’ I said, ‘I’m not a certified peer support specialist.’ I’d wanted to be one for a long time but never took the step.” With Freyholtz-London’s “nudging,” Dahlman said she filled out an application for a peer-support specialist  training program and was admitted to an upcoming class. She enrolled, got certified and joined VPSN as a facilitator at the end of the summer.

For Dahlman, VPSN turned out to be a “great place for encouragement.” She explained that when she joined the group as a participant, she was seriously struggling with her mental health: “I was really down and feeling a lot of depression and anxiety. Hearing the stories of people who worked there and the things they’ve gone through and how they are doing now gave me hope and gave me the belief that things could get better.”

Completing the peer support specialist training and joining WITW’s staff felt like a big leap, she added: “I had a lot of self-doubt about being able to do the job, but Jode said, ‘You can do it,’ and Amy said, ‘You can do it.’ And it turned out I could.”

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Dahlman said she especially appreciates that VPSN is an open and welcoming space. Before COVID, participants needed to have an official diagnosis of mental illness or substance use disorder to work with a peer support specialist. This new approach is more open.

“You don’t have to have be diagnosed with mental health challenges or an SUD,” Dahlman said. “You might just be having a day where you need extra support. You can hop on and join us. There is no criteria for being able to join. You just need to be in Minnesota.”

The daily scheduled activities keep VPSN participants engaged, Conant said. One highlight is an art therapist, who joins the group every week: “It’s been really awesome and very beneficial for people that have been taking advantage of that.” There is also guided journaling, bingo games, writing activities and casual arts-and-craft options.

The daily VPSN meetings are well attended, with as many as 15 participants online at once. So far, Conant said, the virtual gatherings haven’t felt too crowded, but they’re hatching plans if the numbers get to a point where participants begin to feel overwhelmed.

“We want the groups to be small enough so we can have a conversation, so it feels like everyone has a chance to participate. If it gets much bigger, we would break into two groups — but that will be a good problem.”

Funding support

Moving WITW’s peer support programming online was a leap of faith, Freyholtz-London said. Pre-pandemic, their funding was based on a “medical model,” with peer support specialists billing for face-to-face sessions based on an official diagnosis coding. When the pandemic forced her to rethink her organization’s programming, Freyholtz-London approached funders, explaining the necessity of the shift. She didn’t know if they’d drop their support for this new way of doing business.

Luckily, Freyholtz-London said, funders were willing to accommodate her nonprofit’s changes.

“We were fortunate that the organizations that were funding us for the in-person work were willing to transfer their funding.” And, she added, as VPSN grew, more funders appeared, intrigued by how this approach to peer support enabled the organization to reach a broader audience: “We were able to capture some additional funding from some regions that we haven’t been serving before.”

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This expanded support cemented Freyholtz-London’s conviction that taking her organization’s support offerings online was the right thing to do.

“We were told, ‘You’ll never be able to do this without billing,’” she said, “But now, here we are, with 40 people on staff providing support services.” She believes that her organization’s growth is proof that taking a new approach can work: “We don’t have to bill through the medical model any more, and our employees are all making an adequate wage. I love that we are able to provide jobs for people, many of whom are still receiving some type of disability benefits.”

Another way WITW was able to expand its reach was to create specific peer support programming for members of marginalized groups. The virtual offerings make it easy for people in those groups who live in different parts of the state to get together.

“We have started having specific LGBTQ+ sessions, Somali sessions, Spanish-speaking sessions, as well as sessions for seniors and for members of tribal communities,” Conant said. The groups are run by peer support specialists who identify as members of the specific groups, she added: “That’s  been a huge goal of ours. We want to be able to offer something for everyone.”

Conant said she feels heartened that funders were willing to finance this new approach to peer support. While she’s confident that one-on-one peer support will return at WITW post-COVID, VPSN will never go away.

“When COVID hit, a lot of people lost services,” Conant said. “With VPSN, we were able to still offer support, and even expand our reach.” Thanks to this virtual approach, she added, any obstacles to participation have been removed: “You don’t have to go to a doctor to get a diagnosis before you can join. We’re offering access to two peer specialists all day long. It’s something great that came out of something really bad.”