Parting the clouds: Help with mental health in the pandemic

Story by Hannah Butler

Photo by Liz Chrisman

The physical form of the pandemic brought on crisis. The beginning was a frenzy in preparation for what seemed like the end of the world. Soon we saw our own coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the community. Shutdown mode for schools and workplaces commenced.

Underneath any worry about the future was a sense of anxiety. Our political differences didn’t matter. Everyone needed to cope, or find a way to stay sane in a time of uprooted normalcy. Some remodeled their homes, played more games, or furiously baked their constant anxiety away.

But it’s an anxiety we haven’t dealt with before, a new form of stressors and way of life, unearthed emotional complexities we couldn’t understand.

Mental health seemed to be on the back burner despite the contagion of the coronavirus. But mental health professionals have seen how mental illness could be the pandemic within a pandemic. With more referrals to therapists than ever before, FEMA and the Arkansas Department of Human Services set up a free, anonymous mental health hotline through counseling services across Arkansas. The program is called Stay Positive Arkansas.

The anonymity of Stay Positive Arkansas creates no paper trails. There is no recorded call or patient file. Yet, there is the option to telehealth counseling calls without having an appointment or fees.

“When people get quarantined or in isolation, they kind of get this cloud over them,” Leigh Maxwell, program coordinator at Counseling Associates, said. “That’s part of what we’re here for. People don’t realize it, but if they’re in quarantine, they’re feeling isolated and just need connection, they can call us. We can be a connection over a phone line.”

Leigh Maxwell

Leigh Maxwell has been at Counseling Associates for 11 years. She’s primarily worked with the Dardanelle School District and Yell County residents to provide mental health services. 

ON THE HOTLINE’S MISSION: We want to reach as many as Arkansans as possible in order to provide them with hope: hope for their futures, hope for their relationships and just give them a little bit of life in the midst of such a dark and difficult time.

ON RESOURCES PROVIDED: We are able to do immediate crisis counseling but we are also able to do some resource linking. We have all developed our own resource guides, so in Russellville we provide information about the Russ Bus and Main Street Mission. We help gather the resources people need. We’ve also talked about how to file for unemployment, how to gather necessary information in order to get your birth certificate or get your Social Security card so you can go through the process of getting unemployment or whatever we need done.

HOTLINE RESPONSES: In general, we are seeing people coming in and saying, ‘I’ve never felt depressed before, but now I just don’t know what’s going on with me.’ That is a common running theme right now. More kids are being referred for anxiety and depression than ever before. We have a contract with the Russellville School District, and I’m the one that receives those referrals and processes them. I’m seeing the reasons for referrals, this year versus last year, much more anxiety and depression related. Often they cite COVID,  quarantine, or off-site learning because they can’t be in the classrooms as the source of anxiety and depression.

WHAT SHE’S LEARNED: I’ve learned that people are just people. Like, we might have different backgrounds, from different belief systems, from different circumstances and family genetic makeup. We’re just people at the heart of it. We all have a need for love, a need for acceptance and a need for encouragement. We’re all just looking to be invaluable and valued. No matter any of our differences, we’re just people, and we need other people to survive.

Haley Yarbrough

Haley Yarbrough works with children and adults as a counselor. With the grant, she is focusing on supportive services to those in need.

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE PANDEMIC: I’ve been in this role for probably eight months. I was an intern, then a case manager, then a therapist. I started my career as a therapist during the pandemic, so it’s been a wild ride. In the first couple of months that I came on, it was so hectic. There were many days that I just sat and made calls all day with the elderly, because they really struggled with the transition to telehealth. I talked to people all day trying to walk them through the process of setting up a video chat account or livestream so we could even have counseling sessions. There were so many challenges with it and I was pretty overwhelmed.  

ADAPTING TO THE PANDEMIC: Nothing was like I expected it to be when I got out of school. Things were all different. Different clothes and we didn’t have furniture in the lobby. It was just not what I expected so I had to do a lot of adapting myself.

ON PROVIDING THERAPY SERVICES: We’ve definitely been really busy. I know that we have increased services just because of the additional stressors in the world. I just think we’re being more supportive in ways that we haven’t before and provided more telehealth options.

TAKING CARE OF HERSELF: My biggest thing is trying not to take a lot of work home with me and when I get home, trying to find 15 minutes to be somewhere quiet and decompress from the day. I’ll read something and try to get a minute to decompress and make time to be alone with myself for a second.

Mandy Perry

Mandy Perry is an outreach manager for day treatment centers and schools in Morrilton and handles speaking engagements about the hotline. 

IMPACT OF KIDS IN PANDEMIC: A lot of kids feel more lonely because they’re not able to go to normal social functions. They’re not having dances. Back when football season was in, a lot of students were not allowed to go to games because  seats were reserved for parents. Within kids, their biggest source of support is each other and their peers and they were just limited on the contact … I’ve really seen a lot of kids struggle with depression. In Morrilton High School alone, there have been two suicides already, just this school year. Hospitilizatizations are up for suicide ideation for teenagers and kids. I feel like I’ve seen over in our day treatment centers just aggression because they’re frustrated and trying to figure out an outlet. I have some kids tell me that they’re scared of dying. They keep hearing all these stories and they’re afraid that if they get it, they’re going to end up dying and won’t be able to recover from it. Several kids are scared because if parents have health problems, they’ve quit their jobs or have lost their jobs, so their resources are more limited. That makes them more scared about where they’re going to get food. Christmas was a huge stressor. I had a huge amount of increase in kids and parents communicating that they didn’t know how they were going to do anything for Christmas.

ON NEEDING ENGAGEMENT: With the kids that I work with, I’m really working on practicing self-care, coping skills, problem solving and how we can stay in touch and get as much human contact as we can. Setting up those Facebook and Zoom times that they can get together and talk about things going on. There’s not a good answer for schools because they’re doing their very best to keep everyone safe. I don’t know how they could do lunch differently but I don’t like that kids are having to isolate during their lunch times … They have no social interaction or engagement and those social skills are important. 

ON COPING PRACTICES: A lot of what I’ve done before is try to offer solutions. At this point, I’m just offering comfort because it’s all I have to offer. I don’t necessarily have the answers or the solution. It’s a lot about validating their feelings and accepting them for where they are and how they’re feeling on that particular day. I’m trying to problem solve with them and how we can make this better. If we can’t, today might just be a sucky day. And that’s OK. We’re going to have those days.

ON STATEWIDE RESOURCES: A lot of us in mental health purchase things out of our own pocket to be able to provide to our clients. It would be nice to have some sort of reimbursement or an opportunity to purchase things like face masks, stress balls, yoga and meditation stuff or a diffuser for essential oils. I feel like there’s a whole realm of approach of out-of-the-box [ideas for mental health] than traditional counseling.

Joan Hudson

Joan Hudson is a qualified behavioral health specialist who sees elementary children needing mental health services monthly. She has been with Counseling Associates for 14 years.

THE IMPACT OF HER WORK: I think [my work] gives children a different person to connect with that’s not their parent. Sometimes, they’re actually more open with us than they are their parents. They will open up more because we don’t have that parent role.

HOW HER WORK HAS CHANGED: We use telehealth, but I have rearranged my schedule to do in-home visits with kids. That’s how we interact with the virtual students now. 

ON KIDS ADAPTING TO PANDEMIC: I think one of the biggest changes is that they are more cautious. I had a student ask me, ‘Did anybody touch that before me? Have you cleaned that?’ They’re more aware of what it takes to not spread the virus. They’re more cautious. They wear their mask all the time, they don’t ask questions about it all the time, they know that’s the way to keep them safe. They actually have accepted it easier … I think it’s just going to become a part of their normal. We don’t have a lot of conversations about corona. The negative parts I try to stay away from unless they bring it up. If they’re worried about something, then they know they can bring that up and we can talk about it, then move on. We don’t try to stay in that minute … Sometimes, it’s like when you have a topic and you’ve addressed it so many times, it becomes something they don’t even want to talk about.

HOW TO COPE: We do a lot of talking about self care. We ask, ‘What do you do for self care? How can you do more for self care?’ Our basic premise is that you have to take care of yourself. You have to be healthy with yourself and your coping skills to be able to message. People have to have that part of their life that they can manage. We’ve used worry stones, coping skill sheets and things to do when you feel a certain way. 

Brandi Wiseman

Brandi Wiseman is a community liaison and crisis counselor for Counseling Associates. She creates marketing pieces for the hotline as well as focusing on educators’ mental health in Faulkner County. Wiseman also created a booklet on how parents can engage their child in social emotional skills and communication.

ON INCREASED SERVICES: I feel like we’ve seen a steady increase in the need for services, definitely. I’ve been with Counseling Associates for five years and I have definitely seen referrals go up. Initially, when I started, I was in an intensive services program where we all worked intensively in the home with the family and the child. Then, I moved to child outpatient and started working within the schools and the referrals just increasing and increasing because you see these behaviors. What I’ve found is some of it is absolutely behaviors and diagnosis that the child has but a lot of it times it’s issues with the family unit. The parent has diagnoses that have gone untreated, so their parenting style and the way they handle and do things within the home has projected onto this child. Then, behaviors have developed that trickles down. So, you have these generational cycles beginning and referrals increase and services needed increases because of that.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: A lot of [people] have diagnoses and instead of engaging in treatment plan like they should, if they feel like it’s not working properly because they’re not doing what they should per the treatment plan, they will self-medicate with drugs or alcohol and spiral a little more quickly. It will lead to self-harm and that’s a problem … With a parent or an abuser who perpetuates the cycle, it’s an increase in low mood, low self-esteem and the use of those things.

ON HER OWN SELF CARE: I’m really good at leaving work at work. I do bring phones home with me, but I’m good at turning them off. I understand that self-care is more than a bubble bath. I journal,  read and meditate. I make time with friends. I believe in the Zoom craft nights. Me and my gal pals do that and have nights when we might paint something or jewelry making or knitting and crafting.

MENTAL HEALTH IN THE FUTURE: I guess if we had a crystal ball I wish we would have known this [the pandemic] was coming so we could have planned a little bit better. We are, by nature, social beings from young children to the elderly. Being locked up for so long — whether it’s by yourself, with a healthy family unit, or with an abuser, whether you have a mental health diagnoses or you don’t — I think everyone across the board right now is suffering on some level right now with depression or anxiety. I think when COVID does clear, we’re going to see things like more cases of depression disorder, or agoraphobia, or anxiety. I think if there was a little bit more transparency from our government about what we are facing, mental health professionals could have maybe started preparing a little bit better.

Counseling Associates, a nonprofit mental health clinic, provides the Stay Positive Arkansas hotline service to 10 counties including Pope, Johnson, Yell, Logan and Perry counties. Trained counselors are there and understand your frustration and worries. If you are needing help, or just an ear to listen, do not hesitate to reach out to staypositivearkansas.com or call 1-800-844-2066.