Local counselors and service providers discuss mental health during COVID-19

Local counselors and service providers discuss mental health during COVID-19

By Allison Hageman | ahageman@alextimes.com

Monika Taylor, a support group coordinator for Recovery Program Solutions of Virginia, runs a loneliness support group that is often filled with tears, smiles and laughter.

Each session starts with “How are you doing?” and “What’s your personal weather?” The responses describe personal feelings or types of weather, such as partly sunny, dark or bright. The questions allow members to share, giving them an opportunity they might not otherwise have in another dark winter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People come to us very sad, I mean, logically because of what’s happening, and they leave euphoric almost,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s support group is only one of a variety of services being offered to those facing mental health challenges at a time when residents are facing down the end of their first year living in a socially distanced reality.

Looking back

On March 31, it will be one year since stay-at-home orders went into effect in Virginia. For nearly a year, the pandemic has caused feelings of isolation, stress, uncertainty and hopelessness. In Alexandria, winter, a time when many already suffer from seasonal affective disorder, has set in, and people continue to grapple with the mental health repercussions caused by the pandemic.

According to an American Psychological Association study, one in five adults, or 20%, said their mental health is worse than this time last year, and eight in 10 adults, or 78%, said COVID-19 is a significant source of stress in their life.

In Virginia, 35.9% ofadults who responded to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey conducted for two weeks between Dec. 9 and 21, reported symptoms of anxiety disorder.

In April, just as the pandemic began, Cathy Canfield, the director of Counseling of Alexandria, wrote a story for the April 22 issue of the Alexandria Times about coping with anxiety while social distancing. Nearly 10 months later, and she still has concerns about social isolation.

Mental health temperature

Since then, Canfield said she has seen many patients experience uncertainty related to the pandemic. People who had existing anxiety, stress or worry are wondering about the future because the past year proved that things we couldn’t imagine happening can occur. This can heighten anxiety levels and make life feel out of one’s control, Canfield said.

“Mentally we were thinking short term and now this is essentially like your day to-day lifestyle, and that that could be depressing,” Canfield said.

Missing what used to be a part of “normal life,” such as traveling or socializing also adds to the fatigue of the pandemic, Canfield said. Another layer is winter setting in for Alexandria which can make it difficult to walk outside, get fresh air, or meet friends outside.

Lack of social interaction can impact stress levels and depression, according to Canfield. People need to connect and experience benefits from touch, something many could be cut off from right now. She often tells people they need to do the best they can with what they have.

“Even if it’s just [texting] a friend or [setting] up a Zoom call with a friend, or if you’re able to do something outside that feels safe for everybody, to even think about planning those kind of things can be a good mood booster,” Canfield said.

Feeling supported

The “Facing & Overcoming Loneliness” support group Taylor runs, which is a part of Recovery Program Solutions of Virginia, began in October. It started after Taylor, who runs the group and RPSV’s social media, got the idea from seeing social media posts on loneliness repeatedly receive high levels of interaction.

RPSV has a recovery center in Alexandria, called South County Recovery, and their services typically focus on people who face challenges related to mental health, substance abuse or homelessness. The free virtual support groups are open to anyone because everyone is impacted by mental health issues right now, Taylor said.

Every week, new members show up to the group. While there, members watch videos and discuss loneliness and making friends virtually. Often, friendships, volunteering and virtual hugs are encouraged.

“It’s a great way to meet new people, interact, talk, laugh, cry, what have you, but just feel that social piece that we’re missing,” Taylor said.

Youth and mental health

Noraine Buttar, MPH, the City of Alexandria youth development team leader, shared anecdotal evidence that Alexandrians may be experiencing doubt, anxiety, stress, fear, depression or a sense of loss for the way of life before the pandemic. Teenagers, particularly, are struggling with isolation and staying connected, Buttar said.

During the pandemic, Buttar’s office has focused on the prevention of mental health symptoms and creating building blocks for youth to handle mental health issues. Last week, the city announced, in partnership with the Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia and its Resilience Alexandria: Inform Support Elevate (RAISE) program, that it was offering 300 licenses for Kognito, a service that teaches the community how to recognize and talk to teenagers about mental health.

The licenses became available after Alexandria City Public Schools, which the Department of Community and Human Services also works with, bought the service for staff and students. Teachers are not always trained to recognize mental health issues, and the service would help them do this, Buttar said.

Talking about mental health is also a preventative measure, according to Buttar.

“We want to support people and connect them to resources as early as possible,” Buttar said. “We also want to normalize the conversation and erase stigma around mental illness and suicide.”

At Counseling of Alexandria, Canfield said she has seen how virtual school is a struggle for many kids. As a therapist, she said it is “really tough” to see problems she can’t fix, such as a child being tired of Zoom. She said all parents can do is witness and support what the child is experiencing.

“We have gone through already half of a school year. So many parents start to reach out like, “Ok, this isn’t getting better, this isn’t going away. We’ve waited long enough,’” Canfield said.

Teletherapy has worked for many parents whose younger children need therapy, Canfield said. Through Zoom, she can teach the parents play-based therapy techniques.

Possible options

As the pandemic continues, number of new and previously available resources and options have become options for Alexandrians facing mental health challenges.

The City of Alexandria provides additional resources for mental health, including tips for coping with COVID-19 fear and uncertainty, free mental health screening and resources for multicultural mental health. Visit www.alexandriava.gov/dchs/info/default.aspx?id=92897 for more information.

Canfield advises anyone experiencing feelings of worry, depression or helplessness to use a very simple exercise to recenter themselves. People experiencing these feeling should take a breath and ask if they can control the situation and whether they are thinking about the past or predicting the future. If the answer to those questions is yes, it means they are not in the present and need to recenter themselves, Canfield said.

“I think just that simple check-in can be really helpful for us before we kind of let our mind spin out of control,” Canfield said.

Taylor’s loneliness support group will also continue to meet weekly and after hearing members of the group say they miss going dancing, will have a mini dance party.

There will be a virtual DJ and dancing in chairs. Who knows, maybe someone will get up, break the ice and feel “like it’s normal again,” Taylor said.