Entering into graduate school in the Fall of 2019 to pursue my master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, I would have never anticipated the turn of events that would leave the rest of the world, including myself, reeling. As a society, we were thrown into a strange new world. While we were connected via social media, there seemed to be this over-looming loneliness that I could not shake. For me, my entire routine was destroyed. I could not work or go to class. Classes were moved online, my job shut down, and we were surrounded by uncertainty. I was suddenly faced with a virtual world filled with surface level connection maintained by platforms that thrive on predominantly inauthentic postings. I found myself craving more and unable to do much about it.
I closed my eyes and somehow found myself in August starting my internship. I was excited to have been chosen by one of my top choices, the University of North Florida’s counseling center. I began my counseling venture online, performing both individual and group therapy in a telehealth format. As the days ticked by, I found a consistent theme in both my individual and group clients: loneliness. I realized that though we were all feeling lonely, disconnected and uncertain, we were joined by the aloneness. It was though there was an overwhelming sense of deep understanding found among those I encountered. The universality of suffering is something I have pondered on for quite some time. Despite variations in culture, gender, and background, through empathy, we are able to feel the sorrow and pain felt across humanity, all the while separated through a screen.
Humans desire connection. We want to feel understood and heard. “Man by nature is a social animal,” stated Aristotle, but to echo author Alex Morris (2020) and many others, being social is what made us human. Observing my clients in group therapy, I realized that for some of them, this was their only way of connecting with others in a meaningful way. I found that some students had moved from home and were now faced with the reality of isolation and no way to meet anyone new. The importance of group therapy, and therapy in general, during this pandemic cannot go unspoken.
The group’s intimate psychological explorations and the seemingly increased loneliness and disconnection appeared to be a result of the extreme socio-political climate in the United States, blanketed with a pandemic, and tucked in with increased online usage. The group environment can be described as a microcosm of society (Barwick, 2018). In the small group, as we work to survive and grow, we find similarity both comforting and limiting, and differences scary and enriching, and each member finds themselves struggling with these conditions while desiring to alleviate the feelings of despair brought forth by the existential void we have all found ourselves in unwillingly.
While co-facilitating group with another therapist, we found that though our members seemed to desire to alleviate negative feelings, as can be assumed with attendance, our group seemed to stay fixated on what can be classified as “surface-level” topics—going-ons with classes, pets, and hobbies. While this is all valuable for rapport building, it stayed this way for several weeks, only dipping into deeper discussion briefly. Sociologist Robert Weiss (1973) noted that low population density and loss of natural daily social gatherings made sharing experiences and insulating problems more difficult. Retreating into the safety of isolationism rather than articulating our experiences with the challenges faced during this strange time can be signs of psychological disturbance and distress (Barwick, 2018). Eventually, members began to delve into deeper discussion about the challenges they have faced, the pain of isolation, and self-history. It can be surmised that though originally members were fearful of deeper discussion, which was possibly the result of psychological distress, the ability to connect with other students weekly was beneficial in alleviating feelings of social withdrawal, loneliness, and grief.
Thinking back to my group therapy class, I found that two of the goals had gained a new meaning and importance. The goals of recognizing commonality between members and developing a sense of connectedness and learning how to establish meaningful and intimate relationships had come to the forefront of intervention with group members. Though everyone’s life experience varied in a multitude of ways, members were eventually able to lament on the loss of their college experience and routine. They found that the struggles they were facing were common and that they were not alone in their grief.
It is not necessarily the number of social interactions, but the degree to which those interactions satisfies a person’s subjective need for connection (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). Meaningful connection, though subjective, appears to help alleviate symptoms of loneliness. Group therapy is a vehicle that allows meaningful connection to flourish in a space that is safe. Caring for our mental health, while connecting on a deeper level with others while in group sessions allow us to cultivate vulnerability and authenticity. We can see now more than ever our sociality is central to who we are.
Barwick, N. (2018). Making Connections in Groups. Therapy Today, 29(1), 20–23.
Cacioppo, J., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness human nature and the need for social connection. W.W. Norton & Company.
Morris, A. (2020). The Price of Isolation. Rolling Stone, 1341, 60–96.