A GMHC Helper: Beth Henderson on Loss, Resilience and Gratitude

We at GMHC are thankful for our many supporters, volunteers and other helpers, and so for Thanksgiving we’re featuring one of them: Beth Henderson, who started interning in our mental health and substance use counseling department in September.

Henderson, previously the social media manager for New Victory Theater (The New 42nd Street’s children’s theater company), said COVID-19’s onset last year galvanized her to make a career switch from social media and marketing to counseling. Last fall she enrolled in New York University’s master’s degree program in social work.

“I’m taking a new direction and doing something more helping,” she explained. “What I missed most in the pandemic was working with people in a professional capacity and being able to help—to contribute to the net good of the world.”

Henderson’s counseling and research focus for her MSW degree is on mental health, gender and sex positivity, which led her to GMHC for her internship.

She has just started facilitating a support group for long-term HIV/AIDS survivors after shadowing another group leader for several weeks, still remotely because of COVID-19.

With the approach of the holidays, the theme of loss is coming up for many members, she said. “Some of our clients are older and have lived through one plague with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Now with COVID, they’re seeing it come about again in very different ways,” she said.

“There can be a lot of pain surrounding the holidays, and so it’s important for clients who’ve lost so much to have support,” she said. “This time of year, and the change in weather, brings out some sadness in people. If their family unit is not where they want it to be, that is more sharply in focus during the holiday season.”

Henderson’s approach is to work with clients’ strengths, she said, encouraging them to see what connections they do have and ways they might build them.

Asked the most important thing she’s learned so far in her counseling work at GMHC, Henderson replied that it’s meeting people where they are. “In this line of work, you want to save and change everyone—but as a counselor, my biggest strength is to respect and honor where people are, and understand where they want to go,” she said.

“That they are even showing up is important, because it’s so easy not to,” she added.

The biggest surprise, she said, has been finding out how resilient GMHC clients are. “For so many, it’s been such a hard year, and yet they seem to move with such joy despite all the hardships.”

Another welcome surprise, she said, has been discovering what an important role GMHC played in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, now marking its 40th year.

“It’s very special to be at a place that’s mentioned in textbooks in my [NYU] class on LGBTQIA+ history,” she said. “GMHC has great respect in the community, and I’m getting to see how a place that was at the epicenter of support during the AIDS crisis has evolved—and how it’s serving constituents and clients as its mission has broadened.”

Henderson aims to work with LGBTQ people, possibly as a sex therapist, when she finishes her degree next year. At NYU, she’s designed a research project to assess how communication and self-esteem contribute to sexual satisfaction.

“I’d like to give therapists tools to help their clients have better life quality through improving sexual satisfaction,” she explained.

Asked what she hopes for herself and her clients during the holiday season, Henderson replied: “I hope we are able to find some peace in the time ahead, despite the struggle and the pain of the past year and a half. And to be able to come together in whatever way that means, whether with a loved one, a pet, or with people in the community.”

“Everyone has suffered, and everyone deserves that time to celebrate,” she added. “I hope we can give thanks just for surviving—for trying your best in this really difficult place we’ve all found ourselves in.”

This season, Henderson said, she’s giving thanks for all the people in her life. “I am thankful for the people who’ve made room for me, and the people I have subsequently made room for—and for the so many people I share love with in this city.”

“And also, for my cat, Bee, and my dog, Frankie Lou!” she added.

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