As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths rise, for many people, so does anxiety around the pandemic. And at the same time, the pandemic has put treatment of that anxiety at risk.
Alison Brennan is doing what she can to help. The Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and owner of Achieve Mental Health in Iowa Falls has welcomed several new clients since the disease reached Iowa. In one way or another, Brennan said the pandemic has reached every one of her clients.
“It's varied, but some people have started services due to the stress of COVID-19, and it seems as if everyone's stress levels have increased,” said Brennan, who has operated Achieve Mental Health for about 10 years. “Different age groups are processing this a bit differently. Parents are concerned with finances, health, et cetera, whereas teens seem more concerned with loss of socialization or loss of milestone activities like in sports, school events, birthday celebrations, summer events. Some people are actually busier than before COVID-19. Some people are needing to work more hours, having to plan out schedules, or devote more time to kids.”
While she maintains office hours, meeting with all of her clients has taken a different form. Brennan said it's a lot of phone calls and screen time. Before the pandemic reached Iowa, she and the other therapists on staff were seeing an average of 20 to 30 clients each week.
“Due to COVID-19, we implemented telehealth,” said Brennan, referring to use of technology - often video conferencing software - for medical treatment. “Some clients decided not to use telehealth, and want to return to face to face after COVID-19. However, we have gained a few clients who are comfortable using telehealth. Telehealth is a rather easy tool. A client needs an email and then we email them the link for the counseling session.”
Because sessions are not face-to-face for the time being, Brennan said hours are flexible. Prior to the outbreak, therapy was offered during the week from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or later. Precautions have changed things a bit.
“During COVID-19, there is someone physically in the office Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and most Fridays,” Brennan said “However, we ask that clients or potential clients call us at 641-648-4010, instead of stopping in. We will return calls as soon as possible.”
Brennan said she and the others are making themselves as available as they can because they see this as a serious situation. From financial concerns to grief, the pandemic is taking a toll on many people.
“It seems as if most are dealing with a united grief,” Brennan said. “Grief is real. We have all lost something in this - job loss, loss of personal connections, financial loss, loss of celebrations, loss of basic routine, loss of what protection means. As well as concerns of health, and fear of the unknown. Each person has different coping skills to address their ideas of grief, anxiety, fear, or depression.”
Brennan said she wants everyone - not just her clients - to understand there will be an end to this current struggle. And as the world waits, she wants people stay healthy - physically, yes, but emotionally too. Symptoms can be subtle.
“It will vary per person, but if someone is noticing that they are having difficulties getting out of the grief state or anxiety state on a daily basis, they should reach out for help,” Brennan said. “It is OK to take time out to grieve and reflect, but we all must still function on a daily basis. It can be serious. Depression can lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Again, it depends on the person's coping skills. Some people may overuse alcohol whereas others go for a walk.”
Brennan said she and her staff continue to work with clients through other issues as well. She noted that issues raised by the pandemic are really no different than those raised by other triggers.
“We are still dealing with the issues that many clients came in with prior to COVID-19 like depression, PTSD, panic attacks, marriage issues,” Brennan said. “Substance dependency is a coping skill to other issues. We work with substance dependence rather often. Clients can go online to view the local AA and NA meetings and online meetings.”
Brennan said there are ways to avoid going that route. Planning, grieving and hoping are three things people can do. Develop a plan for how to deal with someone in your home becoming ill. Outline what everyone will do and how that person will isolate.
“Consider it similar to making a plan for a fire or tornado,” Brennan said. “This will help members of the family deal with anticipation anxiety and provide some control. And it’s okay to grieve, okay to feel overwhelmed, or okay to feel anxious. There is hope. Focus on it - read up on the race to make a vaccine, testing different drugs, how to make masks. We are all in this together.”
When the pandemic passes, Brennan said there will be more issues. Getting back to normal doesn’t just happen.
“After we get a vaccine, it will be another adjustment for our mental health,” Brennan said. “We will have to re-develop routines, re-evaluate safety, and find meaning. It is normal to seek out counseling during and after COVID-19.”
Above all else, Brennan said people need to take time for themselves. And to remember they are not alone.
“Keep noticing positives and good, develop a daily or weekly routine, stay connected with friends and family - over the computer, phone, or letters,” Brennan said “Notice things you are accomplishing. Make an ongoing list, so you can go back and notice your successes. Remind yourself that we are all going through this together and none of us are alone.”