Starting as a minor inconvenience, akin to a nagging headache quickly eased by a home remedy, social conditions now have morphed into a full-fledged crisis, demanding more attention than an annoying throb.
Many in the Tarrant County College community have experienced and continue to navigate feelings ranging from uneasiness and unrest to full-fledged anxiety and depression as the COVID-19 pandemic dominates daily life.
The need last March to drop everything and relocate to remote work environments left many people unnerved, which soon intensified to exasperation as days of uncertainty turned into months, with no end in sight. According to health experts, if overlooked or brushed aside, these feelings can impair mental health.
Based on findings from a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, The Washington Post reported that nearly half of Americans indicated the COVID-19 crisis is harming their mental health, cited TCC Northeast Counseling Director Condoa Parrent. Additionally, a federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year. Run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, roughly 20,000 people texted the hotline. Further, Talkspace, an online therapy company, reported a 65 percent jump in clients since mid-February. Text messages and transcribed therapy sessions collected anonymously by the company show Coronavirus-related anxiety dominated patients’ concerns.
Mental health challenges such as these trigger trauma.
For example, not being able to leave your house, having modified school at home, and then, children maybe experiencing, not directly, the frustrations that their parents have of learning how to teach them. All of this is trauma.
TCC South Counselor
According to Groll, there are three types of trauma.
“Acute trauma is just single incident (such as) a car accident, or it could be witnessing something. Chronic trauma...(is) something that’s repeated and prolonged, such as the pandemic and domestic violence or abuse. Or, it could be complex trauma. That’s multiple traumatic experiences over an amount of time,” Groll said.
While trauma alters behavior, those undergoing the changes may not readily recognize they are experiencing trauma.
“Trauma affects one’s ability to cope, can cause feelings of helplessness and diminishes the sense of self and the ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences,” said TCC Trinity River Counselor Mandy Melton. “One may get stuck on the event or (events and become) unable to move forward and be in the present.” Trauma can manifest physically in the form of “lethargy, loss of appetite, chest pain, headaches, racing heart, muscle tension in any part of the body, stomach issues and compromised immunity.”
The effect of trauma may be immediate or delayed, Parrent said.
“Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea,” Parrent said. “Living with constant uncertainty, worry or fear can cause trauma.”
TCC Southeast Student Development Services Vice President Michael DuPont agreed, saying uncertainty during the current pandemic contributes to feelings of fear that can produce trauma for people generally accustomed to immediate solutions.
“We know COVID-19 is a virus. So now, we want the solution to it, not realizing or not understanding that the solution isn’t right there in front of us. It’s going to take time to develop that,” DuPont said. “So, I think what’s new and unique about this is the fear of the unknown. A lot of people are walking around, not sure. Do I wear a mask? Do I not wear a mask? Do I go out? Do I not go out?
“So, the fear of the unknown can have both mental and physical impacts or even—spiritual. People are questioning. ‘Why is this happening?’ Fear can produce anxiety. It can produce a number of reactions, causing some mental health concerns, whether it’s loneliness or isolation. A fear of connecting with other people because you’re fearful for possibly contracting this virus,” DuPont said.
During this unusual era, being overcome by negative feelings can be prevented by simply changing one’s activities. “I got stressed a little bit, so I took a 15-minute break, and I went out and pulled some weeds just because I needed that physical movement,” DuPont said, adding that one also can offset becoming overwhelmed by “doing the things (needed) to take care of oneself.
“Getting rest, getting sleep, balance your work, talking and engaging in things that we’re passionate about. I’m not telling you anything new—taking care of yourself, balancing your work, connecting with people—these are just reminders,” he said.
Additionally, self-care can include taking walks and making healthy food choices, Parrent said.
“Talking with someone can be a great resource. In my opinion, this is something we are all missing out on. When I was growing up, I used to see my parents and friends all sitting around and talking to one another,” she said. “When we ate meals, we all talked to one another about our days, fears, excitement and problems. Now families rarely eat meals together and even more rarely do they discuss the events of the day.”
Sometimes taking the focus off one’s self can help change one’s outlook.
“Search for meaning and purposeful activities and enjoyments—religious or spiritual activities. Finding ways to give back to those around you or your community. Meditation and mindfulness (as well as) therapy/counseling are some suggestions,” Melton added.
When self-care is not enough, there are resources available to help. For students, counseling is available on each TCC campus as well as online. Faculty and staff also may make referrals to the campus Consultation, Assessment, Resources and Education (CARE) team. TCC faculty and staff this Fall have an additional resource to help them assist students. Groll and fellow counselors at TCC South created a presentation, “Being a Trauma-Informed Campus and Classroom,” scheduled for professional development for Fall 2020 even prior to the current pandemic, she said.
There also is help available for faculty and staff who need help during the current crisis from the Employee Assistance Program. Anyone who becomes overwhelmed and/or experiences feelings of hopelessness should call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
The newest statistics from the American Medical Association indicate that depression has tripled since March, and the suicide rate among those age 18 to 24 is the highest it has been in many years. Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death among people 10 to 34 years of age.
“As a therapist, I would always want to start with helping an individual feel like what they’re feeling is normal. We call it ‘normalizing’. Helping them understand what you’re going through or what you’re experiencing is typical for people who are going through this uncertain time,” DuPont said.
After helping the person identify the behavior and “call it what it is,” he said strategies are developed to address their fears and/or feelings. “Even though we’ve normalized behavior, it’s not enough just to say, ‘Oh, what you’re going through is normal.’ Let’s also see what some things are you can do,” DuPont said. “You know when you’re grieving, you still want to be able to talk with someone, or you want to be heard.”
Groll said normalizing helps to validate feelings and experiences.
“So, when we start (to help) somebody understand what happened and the emotional impact, we are empowering people to access their coping skills while helping them to understand current challenges,” she said.
“I think another one of the things that’s important is that we realize we are not victims. We’re survivors. It’s powerful in the words that we use. (If we) consider ourselves victims, then we (are) going to carry ourselves that way. We’re survivors,” Groll said. “If you’re a victim, something has been done to you—this has happened to you—so it’s a whole lot harder to recover from that. When you’re a survivor, you’re a part of something that happened.”
Anyone struggling with challenges as a result of trauma and other mental health issues should not expect an overnight cure.
“Being that we are dealing with emotions and feelings…this will not be a perfect science. It does not mean you touch base one, base two and base three and boom, I’ve gotten that one done. It is often possible to get in a place and stay a while. You could progress to the next one and then perhaps regress. It’s not going to look the same for everyone,” Groll said.
One of the things we need to do is to give ourselves permission to exist, be and feel. Additionally, not only grant that permission to yourself, but to your family, friends and colleagues. Again, realize that what it looks like to you—it may not look like to them. One of the greatest things we can do is to be gracious and merciful. Knowing, together, that we can make it.
TCC South Counselor