Group Psychotherapy Column

“It’s the circle of life,
And it moves us all.
Through despair and hope,
Through faith and love,
Till we find our place,
On the path unwinding;
In the circle,
The circle of life.”

– “Circle of Life” in The Lion King

Tevya Zukor, Ph.D.

Summer – The season for lounging at the beach, enjoying a few backyard barbecues, and soaking in the sun. It’s the time of year when the trials and tribulations of the other nine months fade into nothing as we enjoy the respite that we’ve been conditioned to love ever since we first wandered into a classroom as a young child.

When people ask why I work in collegiate mental health, I often joke that I’ve been in the academic world so long, I wouldn’t know how to function in any other environment. For many of us, we’re spent the majority of our lives living on the academic schedule – Classes start around September; we get about a month off in December-January, and then we grind until May; when we finally reach those magical months of summer. It’s been that way since I was a young child and it remains true to this day. Summer is the reward we get for working so hard the rest of the year.

However, for all the hotdogs and hamburgers that one may consume during this time; for all those lazy days at the pool that seem so carefree and idyllic; the reality for those of us who identify as collegiate mental health group practitioners is somewhat more complicated. The fun and enjoyment of the season remains. Our workloads are typically reduced and those many days of vacation that we could not take during the hectic fall and spring semesters get consumed with ravenous delight.

Yet, when we put on our professional hats and think about both the semester that has ended and the new semester that approaches, we are inextricably confronted with the “circle of life” that occurs in our groups. The summer may have started, but for much of June, my mind remains with the clients and groups that I facilitated in the spring. I think about the hopes, goals, and dreams of the group members that I have gotten to know so well over the course of the academic year. Many of those members will be graduating and starting a new chapter in their lives. Did they accomplish what they needed from group? Will they flourish in their next endeavors by applying their newfound knowledge and skills? Was I able to contribute meaningfully to someone making positive change?

That first month of summer is a time of reflection and introspection. How did my groups go? What changes can I make? How can I be more effective? It is humbling to think that in just one group, we likely got to learn, live, and experience the lives of 6-8 members that we did not know when the semester started. We know how these members interact with their family and friends. We know what they say to themselves when they don’t think others are listening.  We have been privy to some of their darkest fears, but also some of their most illuminating accomplishments.  We get to know so many people, so deeply, as a result of our work…and once summer comes, our knowledge of those people ends.  We often don’t get to continue to share their journey. Group members’ graduate and transition to other phases of life.  We are hopefully left with fond memories and a sense of accomplishment in our work. However, we have also suffered a loss; a spiritual death of sorts. We know we will not see or hear from some of those members ever again. While their journey has not ended, our shared experience of it has come to a close. As we have done throughout our careers, we have to wrestle with the finality of termination and try find acceptance that the remainder of those stories will forever be unknown.

However, as is often the case in life, mourning these “deaths” soon brings about a re-birth and new life. As the summer continues and the calendar flips from June to July, our thoughts often turn to Orientation and the welcoming of new students onto campus.  With the emergence of the new incoming class, thoughts start to turn to life and creation.  Are there new groups that one might want to develop for next year? Who will be our new group members? What stories will they share and what journeys will they take us on?

It is incredible to think that as we watch these new students arrive; filled with their hopes and dreams for their new college-life; we will get to know some of these people just as intimately as we knew our previous members.  We will experience new journeys with these students, just as we did with the members that came before.  We may not know exactly what the future holds, but we know that we will soon care about these new stories and new people just as much as we did before. Our groups go forward and with each iteration, we will become a little more skilled and a little more proficient.  We will continue to refine our craft and be there for those who are struggling. We won’t forget the journeys of previous groups, but we will make room to experience new stories and new adventures.

The circle of life continues.