Billings support groups find ways to meet online amid coronavirus pandemic

Billings support groups find ways to meet online amid coronavirus pandemic

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Terry Ball

Terry Ball poses for a portrait in the conference room at the National Alliance on Mental Illness offices in Billings on Friday, March 27. Ball first started attending mental health support groups at NAMI to cope with his bipolar disorder. Now he is a group facilitator helping others who struggle with mental illness. In person meetings at NAMI have been canceled due to the coronavirus but Ball is working to continue the meetings online.

Terry Ball facilitates a support group and understands from experience how necessary they are.

The novel coronavirus has prompted public health officials to mandate Yellowstone County residents to stay home, followed with Gov. Steve Bullock issuing a shelter-in-place order for all Montana residents that started March 28 in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

This order to stay home and limit physical contact with others has forced many groups and organizations to cancel their support group sessions. Many people rely on them, including Ball, who facilitates the NAMI Connection support group within NAMI Billings, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The group is used to making connections among those who live with a mental illness. Ball has bipolar disorder and can relate to others within the support group.

“I do find that I miss it,” Ball said. “If I miss two (meetings) in a row, I’m really wanting to go to that third one. I’ve missed four now, and I’m definitely feeling it.”

The group of about 10 people met twice a week in person before the restrictions were put into place. Ball said that NAMI Billings will be using a video platform called Hey Peers starting in April.

The hope is to have the video platform set up for the nonprofit’s educational classes and the NAMI Family to Family support group too, created for those who have a loved one living with a mental illness.

All classes and support groups are free, Ball said.

“The biggest thing about it is it’s a safe place for people because everybody in the room has been there and we all understand that,” Ball said. “ ... It’s changed my life for the positive.”

The Billings-based South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center doesn’t have support groups, but provides other in-person service groups like Journey Recovery, a 10- to 12-week program that treats and diagnoses addiction disorders.

The center is looking into forming an online format for the group, and others, according to executive director Barbara Mettler. During times like these, layoffs, financial insecurity and prolonged isolation can make things hard for certain individuals.

Terry Ball

Terry Ball poses for a portrait in the conference room at the National Alliance on Mental Illness offices in Billings on Friday, March 27, 2020. Ball first started attending mental health support groups at NAMI to cope with his bipolar disorder. Now he is a group facilitator helping others who struggle with mental illness. In person meetings at NAMI have been canceled due to the coronavirus but Ball is working to continue the meetings online.

Mettler said that since the building is closed, the center’s therapists bill for therapy sessions over the phone, now that Montana’s government waived certain restrictions within Medicaid.

“They’re worried about their rent. They have children — how do they pay for day care? All of those things,” Mettler said. “After a while it starts feeling hopeless, and when someone loses their hope, it puts them at high risk.”

All visitation has been suspended at the Rimrock Foundation in Billings, the largest behavioral health center in Montana. The center has mental health and substance abuse treatment departments and provides inpatient and outpatient treatment.

In addition to their care, inpatients also attend support groups outside the center. Now, the center’s had to make some changes, according to Lenette Kosovich, CEO of the Rimrock Foundation.

The groups now hold various meetings internally, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“We have several staff members that are in recovery that know how to hold those meetings,” Kosovich said. “We don’t ask anyone to come in and do them during this time.”

For those not receiving services from the Rimrock Foundation, AA meetings have also continued in Billings, according to two members of the AA fellowship in Montana.

The Gazette will not report the identities of the members and facilitators in recovery and counseling with AA, due to the anonymous nature of the organization. Their identities have been verified and are known to the Gazette.

There are more than 21 AA groups in Billings alone, and most have moved to a conference call or video call format. Members of each group facilitate the meetings differently and choose when and how often they’ll meet.

However, a few groups are still in the planning stages of getting online, according to one AA member. Through the fellowship’s more than 80-year history, it’s been tradition to keep all members anonymous, but connecting over the internet can make that difficult.

Not keeping a record of members’ contact information also creates obstacles for those trying to reach out.

However, members and those seeking an AA meeting can call the AA hotline at 833-800-8553, or visit aa-montana.org to get connected to resources or get help.

“Trying to get some of these groups together on a Zoom platform, or on Google, or a conference call has been difficult because everybody wants to get input,” one AA member said. “There are a lot of people who are concerned that doing something like that would break a tradition."

The 13th Judicial District SOAR Court is also going through a few changes. The SOAR Court, which stands for Seize Opportunity and Recover, aims to help drug users recover and avoid prosecution through early addiction treatment.

The program’s nine participants keep in contact with the court’s staff through digital apps and other online formats. Court status hearings with a judge are done online as well, according to program coordinator Shelley Thomson.

Treatments and counseling are done over a video format, along with free workout routines by The Phoenix and life coaching by Let’s Strut Your Stuff.

Drug testing is another way to help participants stay in recovery, Thomson said. A testing agency goes to a participant’s home and places a test kit for a urine sample at the front door. The participant places the test outside the door after providing a sample and is collected and processed according to protocol.

Program coordinators have had to think outside the box to connect participants to resources, and they plan to continue using some online access if participants don’t have a car. Thomson hopes to increase the number of participants over the year, depending on how things progress.

But lacking the in-person social interaction with groups, counselors and other supporters can make sobriety difficult, Thomson said.

“They’ve got no in-person experiences,” Thomson said. “Those are the ones that I really worry about, and that’s why the shelter-in-place (order), while I think it’s a good idea to combat this virus, I think that it can be a very scary piece for vulnerable populations.”

Above all, mental health providers and support group facilitators agreed: staying connected is vital, especially during a quarantine and social distancing. To offer another way to connect, RiverStone Health also shared a list of free virtual meetings on its Facebook page.

"There are people there who share what they're going through," Mettler said. "It's coming together and knowing there are other people out there who care."

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