Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

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A health care worker in New York City sits on a bench near Central Park March 30, hunched over and embracing herself. Counselors offers advice on dealing with fear, anxiety, depression or spiritual crisis during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.


Mental health professionals give tips on handling pandemic stress

By SAMANTHA SMITH and ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writers | Published April 16, 2020

ATLANTA—No public Masses, job loss, limited travel, online schooling and canceled events are a few facets of life with COVID-19. 

The coronavirus pandemic has canceled birthday celebrations and postponed weddings. Those who have lost loved ones are limited on who can attend funerals. And with no definitive end in sight, stress and anxiety are common responses.

“This situation creates change for all of us. And change, positive or negative, causes stress,” said Sandra H. McKay, licensed therapist and founder of Holy Family Counseling Center, a Catholic, independent private practice in Suwanee. “How a person copes with stress is therefore very important.”

“Anxiety is a major concern as people experience fear due to a loss of stability, financial distress and health concerns,” said Dr. Gerry Ken Crete, a Catholic marriage and family therapist, professional counselor and founder of Transfiguration Counseling. “It is difficult for most of us to tolerate uncertainty and change our daily routines.”

Decisions about safety are constantly and unexpectedly being made, explained Crete. This includes visits to the grocery store, having enough supplies, caring for elderly family members, deciding when to go to the hospital, wearing a mask and wiping down everything that comes into the house, he said. 

As people continue to cope with life due to the pandemic, therapists have made themselves available to patients through phone and video conferences. Counseling practices also have resources on their websites. 

Therapists at Holy Family Counseling Center were trained in telemental health to support patients online. 

“Though being in person is ideal, we have been pleased to see that this method continues to be very effective and can help everyone feel less isolated and continue their walk toward health,” said McKay.

Family dynamics

“There has been a wide range of responses in how families are adjusting to the fallout from coronavirus,” said Peter Attridge, therapist at Holy Family Counseling Center. “When we go from a society always on the move to one trudging through uncertainty, there is a lot of adjustment that needs to take place.”

“Many families are struggling with living in close quarters which may increase family conflict or bring to the surface older unresolved issues,” said Crete. “Being at home is difficult because a person may feel that they are ‘trapped’ and can’t take any kind of action to resolve the problem.”

Families are also experiencing ambiguous loss, a loss that occurs without a clear reason why, or that does not have closure, said Attridge. Children have lost a school year and time with friends; parents may have lost a job or have been furloughed and vacations have been postponed indefinitely. 

“The ambiguity of these losses piles up for an individual, and for a family,” said Attridge. “While we know that our current situation may be temporary, we still don’t have clear closure on the various losses we are experiencing.”

Despite this, there are some silver linings to the new way of life.

“Many people are actually realizing that their lives have been too stressful and filled with anxiety,” said Crete. “This time is causing people to reconsider their priorities and reflect on the more important things in life such as God, family and relationships.”

“I’ve noticed that there is an outpouring of ideas from our parishes, neighborhoods, small businesses and other avenues on how to live in this season of quarantine,” said Attridge.

Coping tips and strategies

Praying and focusing on your relationship with God are helpful during this stressful time. 

“Read Scripture and watch saints’ lives, both which show life often has twists and turns that are difficult and the only steady never-changing thing is God,” said McKay.

“It is important for people to stay in the present rather than chronically worry about things that haven’t yet happened, and may never happen,” said Crete. Distractions include calling friends and family, incorporating exercise, reading a good book, cooking and enjoying a meal with family and avoiding overexposure to the news, he said.

“Research indicates that developing a routine is a really good way of managing uncertainty,” said Attridge. “Knowing what you have going on the next day helps put your mind at ease.”

“Understand that everyone feels and reacts differently to the situation,” said McKay. There is no perfect way or right way; every family or situation needs what it needs, she said.

“No matter the method we choose to cope with the coronavirus, I always encourage clients to be gentle with themselves in the process,” said Attridge. “Building a routine takes time and is not always easy. Give yourself some grace and if you fail, try again.”

“There are a lot of factors contributing to the need for mental health services at this time,” said licensed professional counselor Beth Ebinger. 

Since much of the community has gone into isolation, people’s anxieties and concerns have ramped up considerably, especially as social distancing forces people away from supportive loved ones, she said. 

Ebinger was a counselor for Catholic Charities Atlanta for eight years. She is a founder of Attento Counseling, a practice located in the northern Atlanta suburbs with some 40 counselors. She attends Our Lady of Assumption Church, Atlanta.

To help people respond to the pressure, counselors acknowledge the changes in people’s lives and then develop strategies to manage the stress, Ebinger said. Those techniques vary for clients, but it can mean encouraging people to connect with parishes, reaching out to loved ones or start that hobby that has been put off, she said. 

Ebinger suggested people limit their news watching and not be consumed by it. In addition, she encouraged people to find accurate sources of information, turning to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for coronavirus updates. 

“You need to make sure you are taking time to connect with loved ones. Find time to connect with your community,” she said.  

Nearly all the practitioners are working remotely and serve clients through video conferencing and telehealth, she said. 

Counselors also need to practice measures to keep themselves healthy. 

Ebinger said the practice has stressed communications among the counselors, who are also sheltering at home, making sure they aren’t feeling isolated as they handle the many clients’ requests. 

At Catholic Charities Atlanta, its two mental health counselors are serving clients who work in industries facing layoffs as the economy is slammed by the coronavirus.

The mental health practice hears from people stressed about meeting basic needs as workers are let go and struggle to make ends meet, said Monifa Holman, the senior program director of the Family Stabilization Program.

Their clients range from low-income families to those with limited English skills, she said. Their primary needs are food and direct assistance for rent and utilities, she said. 

Counselors are working from home, staying in touch with clients as late as 7 p.m. to meet their needs, she said. A challenge is clients may not have access to the internet or only have limited service so they cannot take advantage of resources online, Holman said.  

Holman said concern about food is a driving stress factor during these times. A person’s anxiety rises when the ability to feed your family is up in the air, she said. In fact, she had plans to pick up food from the storage warehouse to deliver to a client in a safe way. 

At Catholic Charities, the counselors keep each other’s morale up by sharing inspirational prayers and quotes in addition to their own self-care plans, prepared ahead of time, along with regular phone calls to check in, said Holman.

She said her staff is focused on supporting people through these uncertain times. 

“We want to be there,” Holman said.