Aspen Strong has long maintained that candid conversations about mental health can help people heal while reducing the stigma of the struggle.
“The more we talk about it, the better we feel,” said Angilina Taylor, president of the local nonprofit’s executive board. “It’s the first step in healing that thing that’s bothering you.”
A new support group, “Time to Talk,” is the organization’s latest initiative to promote that mission.
Led by Aspen Strong co-founder Lawrence Altman and treasurer Andy Godfrey, participants gather on Zoom every month to share their stories of struggling with — and surviving — mental health challenges. It debuted in December; the next meeting is Wednesday.
The group is confidential, a place to listen and be heard without pressure or judgment; with a cap of 20 attendees, everyone has a chance to speak, but there is no requirement that participants share their struggles at the meeting.
Sharing the triumphs and challenges of mental health can be an “incredibly liberating” experience, Altman said. He and Godfrey were inspired to launch the group while sharing their experiences with one another in the months after Altman stayed at a treatment center that offered multiple daily support groups for clients.
“For me, what I got out of those groups was unreal,” Altman said. “People all of a sudden have this feeling of safety and comfort where they’re in the room where they feel like they can talk about things with other people that are experiencing similar things that they never could talk about it.”
The communal element of the support groups is central to the group. In creating an environment in which participants can relate to others, Altman and Godfrey hope to bring a greater awareness to the shared experience of mental health struggles.
“By sharing our stories, and what we’ve been through, we hope that people will be able to relate,” Godfrey said. “We don’t know what aspect of the story they’re going to relate to, but they’re probably going to relate to something, and that familiarity is what allows them to then open up and talk about their own situation.”
That can create a “positive feedback loop,” Godfrey said; the group encourages participants to share their struggles with mental health while helping others cope with their own challenges.
“It’s a win-win,” he said. “I have never found anything else in my life that is so rewarding as that, ‘wow, this is helping me, and it’s helping that person.’”
Godfrey and Altman also hope the support group will aid in Aspen Strong’s mission to destigmatize mental health through open dialogue. Both in their mid-50s, the two said they grew up amid attitudes that emotions should be ignored rather than addressed, something they hope to remedy with these monthly meetings.
“During our generation, we were taught to sweep things under the rug rather than discuss them,” Godfrey said. “It was perceived as a weakness, you know? We’re trying to flip that around as a strength — if you’re open and authentic, people are going to love you.”
Accepting mental health struggles rather than burying them can make a life-changing (and even live-saving) difference, Altman said.
“There is an enormous stigma; … it’s like you need to suck it up, put on your sneakers, go for a run, and do whatever you have to do, but you can’t admit this vulnerability,” Altman said. “Let me tell you, me not admitting my vulnerability and me not seeking help from others almost got me to being gone.”
The group’s organizers recognize that taking the first step by registering for a support group meeting can be a “leap of faith,” as Godfrey called it. He encouraged those nervous to make that leap to begin by “dipping their toe in the water” and only listening at first; there is no requirement that participants speak during the meeting.
Around a half dozen participants have attended each of the first two meetings; Altman said the group will “grow organically” through word of mouth.
“Every little thing that we do (at Aspen Strong) starts sort of like a movement, and this mental health movement is so important because there’s so many people suffering,” Altman said.
“We’re just hoping for the ripple effect,” Godfrey added. “Throw that pebble in the water and it just starts to emanate out from there.”