Photo by Ruta Smith

Seeking Support

Support group leaders for those struggling with sobriety in the Lowcountry knew they were in for a rough year as the pandemic loomed ahead. After all, feelings of isolation and the inability to control one’s circumstances are two of the leading causes of substance abuse.

“We knew there was going to be a surge in the amount of people struggling with addiction,” said Ben’s Friends co-creator Mickey Bakst. “Isolation fuels addiction, and people were being forced to isolate. We felt very strongly that we needed to do something to help those people.”

But like many other support groups across the country, Ben’s Friends, founded in 2016 and based in Charleston, holds in-person meetings for food industry workers seeking help with their addictions. With those no longer an option, Bakst and co-creator Steve Palmer held the first meeting online.

It has been a national success.

“I am not somebody to do something like this online, so the other day at a meeting, I casually asked that if we got to a point where people could meet in-person reliably again, would they want to quit the Zoom meetings,” Bakst said. “But, what’s happened is there is now a national group of people that have fallen in love with each other, and it’s unbelievable.”

The group now has 13 chapters around the country and runs 21 national Zoom meetings a week. 

Despite the weight of the pandemic bearing down on peoples’ shoulders, support groups like Ben’s Friends have been able to lend help to those who otherwise may not have found it. According to Bakst, people are unconditionally more comfortable in the Zoom meetings, because they don’t have to meet others face-to-face. 

“They can sit back and just listen at first, and then all of a sudden, they put on the camera, and then, they’re talking, and before they know it, they’re truly part of the group,” he said. “When someone comes into an online meeting, they are bombarded with phone numbers from people who say, ‘Call me.’” 

Though they have found a silver lining, Bakst doesn’t want to downplay the trauma people are facing at the hands of the coronavirus.

“The hardships of the pandemic are wreaking havoc on people with addiction problems,” he said. “It’s mind-boggling. The number of drug overdoses, alcohol, the number of people struggling, the calls to suicide hotlines — it’s all through the roof. But, the reality is during this time, those that have taken the time to ask for help have unconditionally found it in Ben’s Friends.”

While Ben’s Friends takes the community-based group meeting approach to a new level, other organizations are taking mental wellness and addiction in a different direction. Modern Minds, also based in Charleston, works with clients in a therapy-driven collaboration with services like nutrition, yoga classes, meditation, mindfulness and group sessions.

“This came together because we recognized that mental health often fits by itself away from physical health and wellness,” said Anne Marie Albano, the group’s executive director. “For the most part, there’s no integration of physical health folded into psychotherapy and medication therapy. This is a holistic approach to treatment.”

Having just opened its doors at the end of summer 2020, Modern Minds is fairly fresh, both to those using its services, and those providing them. Albano was pulled from New York to Charleston to run the organization.

To Albano, the treatment is more about helping those in need to understand themselves as people that experience all sorts of things throughout the course of their lives. However, a unique approach to substance abuse treatment didn’t make the group immune to the pandemic’s oppressive effects.

“We got to telehealth right away,” Albano said. “We have a sister organization called Synchronicity in Mount Pleasant; that’s where our colleagues who are yoga instructors, nutritionists and meditation folks help us with holding online classes that our clients can tune in to.”

While they still offer in-person sessions, they aren’t only for clients, and the health care providers do what they can to ensure the safety of and comfort of clients, including distancing and sanitization. But, Albano looks forward to when things can move to a stronger sense of normalcy.

“Once vaccines come online, of course we will be opening up more,” she said. “I want to see meetups that are Modern Minds meetups for our clients to really build the community at the beach, at the park and all around Charleston.” 

Ben’s Friends holds meetings at 11 a.m. Sundays in the Cedar Room above Mercantile and Mash at 701 East Bay St.. Connect with a Modern Minds health care representative at modern-minds.com.