This local nonprofit is offering free online support groups to improve mental health during coronavirus

  • A picnic table and some chairs can be found in the courtyard at Peer Support Space in Kissimmee where Visitors are encouraged to find respite through conversation, art, hobbies and volunteer opportunities. NEWS-GAZETTE PHOTO/BRIAN MCBRIDE
    A picnic table and some chairs can be found in the courtyard at Peer Support Space in Kissimmee where Visitors are encouraged to find respite through conversation, art, hobbies and volunteer opportunities. NEWS-GAZETTE PHOTO/BRIAN MCBRIDE
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As tensions surrounding the coronavirus mount, a group of Osceola County residents are finding strength and solace in a local support group aimed at providing connectivity — even in the height of COVID-19.

Building community in a time of social isolation

Peer Support Space opened its Kissimmee doors Feb. 1 to help those struggling with suicidal thoughts and other mental health challenges. The nonprofit offers all its services at no cost to the public.

Park Place Behavioral Health donated the building at 880 Martin Luther King Blvd., Kissimmee, to the group’s two founders who renovated it into a unique peer support drop-in center. Visitors are encouraged to find respite through conversation, art, hobbies and volunteer opportunities.

Response from the community was incredible, said Yasmin Flasterstein, executive director and co-founder of Peer Support Space. The organization, launched in 2019 with co-founder Dani Hill, previously held groups at various Orlando locations before opening its first permanent office in Kissimmee.

Then, COVID-19 hit Osceola County less than six weeks after the office opened its doors.

Flasterstein and her volunteers were left grappling with a paradox: How do you build community in a time of social isolation?

“We knew people were going to need each other now more than ever,” said Flasterstein.

So, the nonprofit transformed like so many aspects of American life recently.

It went virtual.

A sense of normalcy in the chaos

Members can now call in or use Zoom video conferencing to stay connected. Twice daily support groups launched March 16, with calls at noon and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Volunteers also run a Facebook group where members can share stories and support.

Three days after remote services began, 60 different Central Florida residents had participated in at least one support group.

Flasterstein said the coronavirus is taking a toll on everyone’s mental health, but those who already struggle with substance abuse, suicidality, anxiety and depression are especially at risk.

Recent group discussions often center on how the global pandemic is impacting daily lives and routines. Concerns over rent, employment and childcare worry some members as much as the virus itself.

But groups strive to find silver linings, a sense of normalcy in the chaos. People talk about their pets, kids and hobbies. They share what’s for dinner and often, the goals and dreams they plan to pursue once social distancing restrictions lift.

Support for the elderly and vulnerable   

About 15 of Peer Support Space’s virtual members are over 60 years old — the population most venerable to COVID-19.

Flasterstein said many are senior citizens scared to leave their homes. Elderly assisted living and nursing home residents are there too, coping with visitation restrictions that bar them from the familiar faces of friends and family.

Older Americans are already prone to isolation and loneliness, a finding supported by a Feb. 27 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The new research — released two days before the first U.S. coronavirus-related death — describes how social isolation and loneliness dramatically increase the likelihood of mortality, dementia, heart disease and other illnesses among older Americans. It also notes how low income, LGBT and minority subgroups are even more likely to experience feelings of isolation.

Flasterstein said she hopes these free virtual groups help bridge the gap.

“We’re in a time when human connection is so important,” Flasterstein said. “That way we don’t feel alone with our fears.”

‘Good to know people are still alive out there’

Jelyssa Zunt called into one of the support groups March 18. She’s struggled with mental health most of her life and started attending events hosted by Peer Support Space in Orlando last year.

Zunt, who identifies as a transgender woman, said feeling accepted by others in a non-judgmental environment creates a light during her darkest moments.

“I’ve been in a real bad place sometimes,” Zunt said. “I go to that group, and I come out laughing.”

But each day is a new challenge. Interruptions to her daily life caused by the coronavirus add another layer of anxiety.

March 18 was a particularly difficult day.

“I wasn’t doing well,” Zunt said. “I didn’t want to continue on.”

Flasterstein had told her about the new virtual support groups. Zunt decided to try it and called in.

She admits it was a bit confusing at first. People had to troubleshoot microphone issues and adjust webcams. The background noise could be distracting. 

Once it got underway though, Zunt felt close to people again. She said it was a unique experience, a way to be united without leaving home.

“It was nice to hear everyone’s voice,” Zunt said. “It was good to know people are still alive out there.”

For more information

To learn more about Peer Support Space, including how to donate or participate in a remote group, visit their website at www.peersupportspace.org.