What gave you the idea for a group such as this?
Christina: After I graduated with my MSW in 2007, I didn’t have a Social Work supervisor at my job (I was the Social Worker for the Tuscaloosa County Public Defender’s Office and was the only one there at the time). One of my professors at the UA School of Social Work took a bunch of us in who were in similar situations and formed a group supervision. We met once a month for four hours and took turns with case studies and used that time to get feedback, brainstorm and just generally help each other out as burgeoning Social Workers. I loved it. I looked forward to it every month! I loved the camaraderie and getting to learn about different areas of the field. It was so helpful to me to bounce difficult cases off of other Social Workers and to be reminded that I wasn’t alone. I had always loved the idea of an intimate, peer support group like my clinical supervision had been. In 2016, when I went into private practice the thought was really prominent. I was at a training with Leslie Phillips (whom I had worked with at the MHC in Decatur for a while) and the topic of a group like this came up. I emailed her sometime later asking if she would be willing to put out an email to her list serv to see if anyone would be interested in forming or being part of a therapist support or networking group. She graciously agreed and that is how I was introduced to Pam.
Pam: For me, this group came out of necessity. I had just started working at a private practice in 2018 and felt disconnected from resources such as referrals, consultations, and just missing connecting with other like-minded professionals. When you are new to private practice it can be daunting, scary, and lonely. I felt that having a network of other therapists and mental health professionals taking the same leap into private practice would make things a little less scary. I definitely feel that, for me, the concept of this group came from the idea of community for professionals in a similar situation as myself.
How did you meet and decide to collaborate with your co-founder?
Pam: I remember talking to a fellow colleague, Leslie Phillips, after one of her trainings and chatting with her about the idea of forming a networking group. And she said “I just did a training with another therapist who was asking me the same question. Maybe you can reach out to her and come up with something.” She gave me the therapist’s contact information. That therapist just so happened to be Christina Pannell. I was thinking what do I have to lose. So, I reached out to Christina via email, and she's said “yeah! I'm definitely down let's do this!” and things kind of moved organically from there. I don't remember having any particular plan or anything, I just remember feeling like I would like to connect with someone else who's experiencing the same things as myself right now.
Christina:A few people who responded to me from that email told me I needed to get in touch with a therapist named Pam Tippit (I was brand new to the Huntsville therapy community at that point and didn’t know many clinicians in this area). Pam was already in the beginning stages of garnering interest from the community. I honestly don’t really remember how a lot of those early conversations went (this was Spring of 2017 which feels like a lifetime ago!), but we shared a similar vision. We joined forces and had about 20 or so people respond to us initially which we thought was a big deal! We were pretty wide open at first – we started with two monthly meetings (one in the evenings, one on Fridays) to try to be accommodating. Turnout was varied and ultimately narrowed that down to just Fridays. Eventually, we started finding a groove. We realized that the meetings were becoming more popular and we started asking practices to host us, which has been so much fun! I am so grateful to everyone who has opened their offices to us and given their time to host our group.
What are the challenges of facilitating a group like this?
Christina: Technology! I am NOT tech savvy at all. I get the basics, but beyond that I’m lost. As the group began to really grow, we ran into issues with the email server cutting us off. We feel like the email platform has been so successful because it’s quick and gets a lot of views which ultimately leads to robust responses, but it has its limits as not everyone can see all of the responses to the questions. We know there are so many people who could benefit from the answers to a lot of the questions that get asked. This is probably where the idea for the Google Docs was born. We have yet to come up with a good idea for creating a more interactive platform for a group this size that is fully inclusive. With the Google Docs, we try to take the most common questions we receive and create a shared space with answers. We are continuing to expand that as I’m working on a Doc with local internship spots. For all of my technological shortcomings, Pam is a champion with technology. She has spearheaded the bulk of our technological challenges, and she crafted and launched our awesome website totally unassisted! I find myself regularly in awe of her capabilities and her willingness to tackle these roadblocks head on and without hesitation.
Pam: Honestly, the challenges of facilitating this group are few. I know initially the group was quite small and I was thinking “yeah, we might get some consultation done, we might make a few professional connections, that's it.” But to see what it has become from just four to five people meeting in an office to well over 200 people, you couldn't have told me that it would grow like it has. If there were any challenges, I would say time and working through some of the restrictions with COVID. With that being said, the time commitment is minimal. Even now with this many people, it still only works out to be at the maximum, five hours a month and at the minimum, 2 hours a month. With COVID we were just struggling the question of “how do we keep the group connected?” And even with COVID, the fact that our group was still offering referrals and a space to ask questions, it seemed as though we were, at the minimum, providing professionals with a resource and a space to ask pertinent questions and make referrals to ensure that the people in our area were still being connected with proper services and providers even when we could not physically meet. I have Christina to thank for this. She is the Listserv QUEEN!! She ensures that your inquires, questions, referrals etc. get out there and MHPNA could still provide a necessary resource, even during the pandemic.
What do you enjoy most about this group?
Pam: hands down I love having a resource at my fingertips that allows me to connect with other therapists, making those professional connections that keep me abreast of what happening in the mental health community, in our service area and, last but not least, working with my co-founder Christina Pannell! I could not do this without her!
Christina: There is nothing more rewarding then when someone who posted a question through us to the group tells me that they received a lot of great feedback. Knowing that our members are able to ask questions quickly and get real time, direct responses has been so fulfilling. So much of what we do in Mental Health feels urgent and I try diligently to make sure that questions get put out to the group as quickly as possible. I have loved not only getting to know so many clinicians and providers in this community but making friends and lifelong connections. I also believe firmly that when a provider feels supported and connected, they can in turn provide the best quality care to their clients. If we are able to help with that in any way then that’s rewarding in and of itself!
What do you envision for the future of Mental Health Professionals of North Alabama (MHPNA)?
Christina:So much of what has happened with this group over the last four years has blown me away. As of this writing, we have 239 members of our group with new clinicians contacting us to join almost weekly I think what we’re doing is working out so well and we strive to remain inclusive and supportive. I’m really looking forward to growing our community partnerships and reaching out to colleges and universities to let them know about this resource and explore how could be helpful to students and new mental health providers.
Pam: I envision this group connecting with even more mental health professionals, branching out into colleges and universities to connect the future generation of mental health providers, and continuing to find opportunities to connect the community and our group. But who knows, the sky is the limit!!! I honestly can say I'm really excited about what could come next, because as I said earlier in this blog, I simply thought this group would be for consultation and to meet other therapist like myself, but it's grown into more than I could have envisioned! So, I'm excited to find and figure out what the future hold for us!