Stepping Up to the Challenge
By Lisa Gregory
There’s been a lot of clay smashing these past months.
“You really have to work it and start moving it around to make it into something, so it’s a lot of punching and smashing,” says an art therapy participant at the Art Therapy Studios in Hanover. “It takes a lot of aggression out. It also takes your mind off of whatever you were worried about.”
And, in 2020, there’s been a lot to worry about.
“Art therapy can be a great tool for reducing stress and anxiety and help with coping strategies for our complex world we are living in now,” says Brenda Cunningham, founder of Art Therapy Studios. “2020 has been a doozy of a year.”
The participant, who did not want to be named, says her anxiety could have gotten the best of her during this pandemic. “I would have been a mess,” she says.
But she has the clay. And there are the other coping tools and activities, such as painting and drawing. “Now, when I’m upset, I have outlets. It’s so helpful,” she says.
These are not easy days. A pandemic, civil unrest, wildfires, and hurricanes.
“The world is on fire, both literally and figuratively,” says Tish Weikel, founder of and a counselor at Phoenix Counseling Services in Gettysburg. “It’s completely heartbreaking.”
And it is taking its toll. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 40 percent of adults in the United States are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues as a result of COVID-19.
Yet there is help and hope during these tumultuous times. Many options for mental health services are available in the area, such as Pennsylvania Counseling Services, TrueNorth Wellness Services, and WellSpan Philhaven. And there are varied types of care as well. Some focus on children, such as the Children’s Aid Society with its Nicarry Center in New Oxford. Others, like Phoenix Counseling Services, include a holistic approach to mental health, such as acupuncture and meditation, and also offer a specific focus on the needs of the LBGTQ community. And still others, such as the Art Therapy Studios, use creative expression as a form of therapy.
“Mental health and substance abuse services are always challenging,” says Garrett Trout, chief executive officer for TrueNorth Wellness Services, with offices in Gettysburg and Hanover. “But then you throw a pandemic on top of it, it doubles and triples the challenge.”
Of specific concern to Trout, who says that TrueNorth Wellness itself has seen an increase of 30 to 40 percent in services since the pandemic began, is the CDC study’s statistic that 11 percent of respondents reported seriously considering suicide in the last 30 days.
“That’s pretty astronomical when you think about it,” he says.
TrueNorth Wellness provides crisis services for those at risk. This includes mobile services available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year on-site, in the community, or in the home.
“It’s a challenge to get individuals to open up about their struggles, especially when it comes to suicide,” says Trout. “A lot of times, when you have them in their environment that they are comfortable in, sometimes they’ll share a little bit more. And then you are able to make a better informed decision on what care of treatment is needed for them.”
TrueNorth Wellness also serves as the regional call center for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Individuals with substance abuse issues also are among those who are struggling right now. That’s not surprising, says Kim Ernest, executive vice president of Pennsylvania Counseling Services, which offers services to adults and children with an office in Gettysburg.
“In terms of drugs and alcohol and recovery, boredom and isolation are two heavy predictors of relapse,” says Ernest. “People not leaving their homes for months definitely can contribute to that.”
However, telehealth services are providing a lifeline for many, including those with substance abuse issues, and Ernest sees the potential. “It certainly has a learning curve. But now that I’ve been doing it for a couple of months, it feels like old hat,” she says. “You have to learn to pay more attention to the nuances in voice or just the body language. But there’s still a lot of value there.”
But people still need face-to-face interaction. And that has weighed heavily on individuals as they have been confined to their homes during the pandemic, hesitant to venture out and interact with others. And when they do venture out, their faces are covered with masks.
“People are biologically designed to need other people,” says Weikel. “We need people. We need people’s facial expressions and cues to develop attachments, and we’re now wearing masks, and we don’t get that on a day-to-day basis. We need touch. Again, for attachment. We don’t have that. And it is rocking our world.”
As social beings, individuals have been hard hit by COVID-19 and its limitations, complicated even more so with adults working from home and children learning online.
“People don’t get to go out to restaurants,” says Ernest. “Parents aren’t getting any break from their kids. Families aren’t able to get together and celebrate. We’re used to rituals and holidays. All of these things were kind of standardized checkpoints throughout our days and lives.”
And adults are not the only ones struggling. Children are too. Trout encourages parents and caretakers to be aware of this. “As we’re talking about a loss of hope and all these problems we’re facing, children are soaking it all in,” says Trout. “We need to be careful of what they see and hear.”
A timeout from all of it may be in store.
“I think the biggest thing is kids need to be kids,” says Eric M. Chase, executive director and CEO of Children’s Aid Society Southern PA District Church of the Brethren. “They need to go outside. They need to play and run. They need these things. Children, I think, probably spend a lot of their leisure time playing video games, on computers, doing that sort of thing. But they are spending so much of their school time doing that that I think their needs to be alternatives to that as a leisure time.”
Be creative, says Chase.
“Try camping in your living room,” he says. “Build a blanket fort, throw sleeping bags underneath it, and make s’mores. Just create an activity that’s fun for your kids.”
As people adjust to the new reality of life during a pandemic, there are those who feel they have better dealt with it as a result of already having coping skills in place. It’s a ray of hope, as it were, for others dealing with mental health concerns during this time.
“A lot of people who are already in behavior health services have really been doing well with the pandemic,” says Lisa Woods, director of outpatient behavioral health with WellSpan Philhaven, which offers services in Gettysburg. “They are able to use those coping skills to make it through the day to day and the unknown that is ahead of us.”
Mental Health Tips for an Uncertain Time
And for others, the door to better mental health will continue to be open, Woods says, even past the current crisis. “I am hopeful that when we get back to normal that people really recognize what they’ve been holding inside [during the pandemic]… and that they will be willing to say ‘I need to address this and confront this’ and are willing to seek services to help them get back to normal life in every way possible.”
So how does one weather this emotional storm with no immediate end in sight? How do we care for our own mental well-being on a day to day basis?
The answers may be easier than one would think—and often done quite simply.
Disconnect. “Turn the television and computer off,” says Trout. “Put the cell phones down. Your brain is not getting time to rejuvenate. It’s never resting. It kind of puts your brain in hyperdrive. I think we’ve created this society where the monitor has to be in your face all the time. That’s not healthy.”
Exercise. “Physical exercise is definitely a plus,” says Trout. “If you just go walk for 10 or 15 minutes, that can be such a huge benefit.”
Practice mindfulness. In other words, while taking that walk, be tuned into the world around you. “Just checking in with all five senses,” says Weikel. “Can I feel my shoes hitting the ground right now? What can I see? What can I hear? Can I taste the air? What do I feel on my body right now? For me, when I walk, that really keeps me focused in the here and now and helps recenter and transition to the next things.”
Put pen to paper. “Write some letters,” Weikel says. “We’re stuck at home. Let’s bring back snail mail. Not only are we getting the motion and rhythm and routine of writing, but we’re brightening someone else’s day and still getting a human connection.”
Be joyful. “Be able to let yourself go,” says Trout. “Enjoy yourself. Laugh. Whether it’s going out and playing a game or hanging out with your kids and just joking around. We’ve lost sight of that. Everyone is so serious now.”
Have grace. “Because we are all in a really challenging place, and it’s a place we’ve never been before,” says Woods. “We’re allowed to have bad days and bad moments and so are other people, but I would say just have grace with yourself and with others.”
After all, she adds, “We’re all fighting the same battle together.”
Pennsylvania Counseling Services
Children’s Aid Society
The Nicarry Center
TrueNorth Wellness Services
Phoenix Counseling Services
Art Therapy Studios