Bringing GPS to Serbia

In her native Serbia, where Katarina Subasic works as a journalist, mental health is a taboo topic. Therapy or other resources for those needing services are scarce, which is how she wound up launching a peer support group for members of her community.

“In Serbia and the whole Balkans region, mental health is not really something people talk about, and usually people are ashamed of needing help,” she said.

The country’s health care system seems to reinforce this culture of silence, putting treatment out of reach for many Serbians. Most health insurers don’t cover mental health care, and with an average net salary of $900 per month, many people can’t afford to pay privately for therapy. Those who can often have difficulty finding a local therapist, as they are generally in short supply, said Subasic.

In many cases, the most a patient seeking therapy can hope for is a 15-minute session with a psychiatrist who will prescribe medication, or psychiatric hospitalization, which is unwarranted for most people.

Inspired by her own experience in long-term therapy—Subasic is among the fortunate in her country who has been able to access treatment—as well as her reporting on the impact of trauma on journalists, Subasic became an active member of a Facebook group devoted to promoting mental health in the Balkans region. The group includes more than 22,500 members. Seeing a spike in the need for mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, she became interested in the idea of providing peer support in the region to help people cope with the tumultuous times. Subasic had attended U.S.-based online peer support groups herself and found them to be helpful.

Subasic, a fluent English speaker, found the GPS website while researching how she could become a support group facilitator and ordered our GPS Group Model Facilitator’s Manual. Intrigued by the Serbia-based inquiry, a country where GPS has not previously done work, GPS Co-Founder and CEO Liz Friedman contacted Subasic to learn more. The two met online for a scheduled 30-minute conversation that stretched to 90 minutes. Friedman ultimately offered to assist Subasic with facilitator training and setting up a group.

“I’m very happy and grateful for that, because it was a huge encouragement for me to get the proper training,” said Subasic, who added that Friedman also provided training to her friend and co-facilitator, Anesa.

A local therapist who is socially engaged in community-based work on healing from trauma offered further organizing and supervisory assistance as well as space to hold group sessions. The therapist also shared the invitation with her professional network to help recruit participants. Because this first group would focus on healing from trauma, Subasic and her fellow organizers wanted participants who were in, or had experience with, individual therapy so that they could receive added support as needed.

All told, after working around her personal and professional commitments, getting trained in the GPS model, and other logistics, it took about a year from when Subasic began researching support group facilitation to launching her first group. The eight-week group she launched earlier this year met every Saturday for 90 minutes with eight participants including Subasic and her co-facilitator.

Subasic called the experience “amazing” and “highly effective.”

By the third meeting, participants began asking what they would do when the eight weeks were up, because they wanted to keep going. After the seventh group session, they created a WhatsApp group to keep in touch. Ultimately, Subasic and the other group members decided to continue meeting monthly to check in and continue to receive support.

She was gratified to see how the groups empowered participants to take more control over their health and wellbeing. One participant began individual therapy. Another woman’s psychiatrist reduced her medication intake because the groups helped her feel better. Others who had previously avoided doctors made appointments for checkups.

Despite the demands of her job, Subasic is committed to launching more groups and to training facilitators who can launch groups in their own communities. Although she continues with her own individual therapy, Subasic says she received just as much from the group she co-facilitated as the participants did.

“That’s what peer support means — we all went through the same experience and no matter where we are in our own therapy, there are certain things that are very specific to be recognized and validated by the group who had the same experience, and that’s something you cannot get in therapy,” Subasic said. “It’s supplemental to therapy, but it’s something you can only get from peers who have the same experience. So I’ve benefited a lot.”