May is Mental Health Awareness Month. During the month of May, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) joins the national movement to educate the public, fight stigma, advocate for policies, and provide support to people with mental illness and their families.
Over the last year or so, we have endured radical changes from the global pandemic. As the messages increased that we were not able to live life as we once did, our bodies entered a fight or flight stress response. Worrying about losing our jobs, our health and our family’s well-being while also trying to care for our vulnerable loved ones and homeschool our cooped-up children sent many of us parents into a tailspin of emotional and parenting regressions. According to Lisa Giarratana, a Tampa-based Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), an EMDR-trained therapist, owner/director of Mosaic Wellness Collective and mom of three, many people are experiencing an uptick of symptoms congruent with anxiety and depression. Quite a few, she said, reported experiencing these symptoms for the first time during the pandemic.
What to Look For
“In children, stress commonly manifests with struggles going to bed or staying asleep, increased crying spells or meltdowns, increased questions about death/dying and increased separation anxiety (including school refusal),” Giarratana says. “Parents expressed feeling out of control, being short tempered with kids, feeling disconnected, feeling hopeless, increased feelings of inadequacy or guilt, engaging in things to numb or distract from the stress (alcohol, drugs, obsessive worry, change in eating and sleeping patterns, consumerism, doom scrolling, etc.)”
In teens, she said, depression can manifest as irritability. “This can be tricky to tease out from typical adolescence, but is so important to pay attention to. When teens transitioned back to school in the fall (whether attending in-person or virtually), many teens expressed an increase in anxiety and panic at school. Unfortunately, a lot of times teens suffered these symptoms in silence and were unwilling to share their anxiety with their parents. Many teens who only had a history of experimenting with illicit drugs started to increase their use.”
Families reported extra tensions in the household. Teens and parents clashed on COVID-19 boundaries and strain with extended family triggered childhood traumas. “The complexity of even a birthday to be celebrated spurred family and friend debates that bred division,” Giarratana says. “This lack of connection with ourselves and others coupled with political division sent us into deeper isolation – physically and emotionally.”
When to Seek Help
There is an abundance of research on how adverse childhood experiences impact our mental and emotional health in adulthood. If you’re struggling, Giarratana believes you may benefit from processing past experiences that continue to impact your present life. Additionally, look out for these signs:
- Behavior patterns or changes such as sleep issues, impulsivity, unhealthy coping, or any behavior that creates a barrier to health or relationships
- Thought patterns that are negative or hopeless (e.g. “I’m not good enough. I can’t do this anymore. Other people don’t care about me. I’m a failure. Things won’t get better.”)
- Substance abuse issues – many times it’s a close friend or loved one who notices it first
- Body image issues, including symptoms of an eating disorder or chronic dissatisfaction
- Relationship issues including involvement in abusive relationship patterns (controlling behaviors, verbal or physical abuse)
- Feeling sad or dissatisfied often, which in teens can look like isolation or lack of peer interest or involvement.
- Experiencing significant life change or loss.
- Frequent feelings of worry or anxiety that may include panic attacks, which are moments of feeling overwhelmed and short of breath
Additionally, seek immediate help if there are any thoughts of harming yourself or someone else.
“If your child expresses this in any way, always take them seriously and seek help,” Giarratana says. “It is important to send a message that we, as parents, are listening and will act. Even if it’s a false alarm, the risk of sending the message that we won’t take them seriously is far greater.”
How Therapy Helps
A therapist is a trained professional qualified by a 4-year college degree and the completion of a 2- to 3-year master’s degree in mental health, followed by a minimum of 2,000 hours of supervised clinical hours and the passing of a licensure exam. Therapists are also required to remain current on continuing education and are governed by their respective board.
Therapists use many types of therapeutic interventions that are evidenced-based practices, meaning research shows they are highly effective at reducing different issues and symptom sets. You can find a therapist specialized in the very thing you’re wanting to improve, or you can seek more general counseling for improved overall well-being.
Therapy offers a unique space for people to share any aspect of their life free of judgment or subjective opinion. Mental health counselors also operate from a place of unconditional positive regard, meaning not only can you tell them anything, but they will also work to always offer unwavering support and acceptance.
Find Affordable Counseling
Many times, people who need help have difficulty in finding mental health resources within their means. Here are a few ways you can access affordable therapy:
- Ask about a sliding scale. While the provider may not come out and say it directly, you can always inquire if they offer a reduced rate based on income.
- Utilize your insurance. Some providers accept insurance, which requires a co-pay. Your insurance provider can supply you with a list of covered therapists. Or you can visit psychologytoday.com and click the “Find a Therapist” tab. This is an incredible resource as you can select areas of specialty in addition to insurance and payment types accepted.
- Ask for a Super Bill. Some insurance providers offer reimbursement after services are rendered. Find out if your insurance carrier offers this and if so request a Super Bill from your therapist to provide to your carrier.
- Maybe you qualify for grant-funded therapy. Agencies such as The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay may have grant funding available to clients who qualify. Any community member can also call its 24-hour hotline at 211 if they are experiencing a mental health crisis or to be connected to resources in the community.
- Many employers offer EAPs. Employee Assistance Programs typically offer several free therapy sessions per year, and sometimes the benefits even extend to other members of the employee’s household.
- Skip the credit card and use your HSA. Many employees can opt into a health savings account which can be used for out-of-pocket health expenses such as therapy. This is money taken out of your paycheck pre-tax. Often, employers assist in funding these accounts.
- Try a membership program. Open Path Collective requires a one-time lifetime membership fee and offers a network of therapists who guarantee reduced rates based on financial need. Find out more at openpathcollective.org.
EMDR and Alternative Therapeutics
“Mental health is the integration of the mind and the body, and requires modalities that honor both,” Giarratana explains. “Anxiety, for example, is felt physically (heart rate increase, sweaty palms) and mentally (thoughts of worry and fear). My colleague, Melody Granzow, combines her skills as a mental health clinician with her knowledge as a certified yoga instructor to assist clients in de-escalating their bodies’ stress responses.
“I practice a type of therapy called EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). This form of therapy engages the brain (and body) by stimulating it bilaterally (using tones in each ear or eyes moving side to side for example) to reprocess distressing memories so that we can have a more adaptive and positive view of ourselves, our world and others. The technique has been used to treat veterans experiencing PTSD and is a trusted form of treatment for individuals to process not only past trauma but also work on processing future events that may be perceived as distressing.”
Whether you’re on the go or the timing isn’t right for therapy now, there are many ways you can easily lower your stress level. Here are some tips recommended by Giarratana:
- Breathe in for four seconds through your nose and exhale for a count of seven, slowly and deeply through pursed lips. For kids, have them pretend to hold a birthday cupcake. Have them smell the cupcake (inhale), then blow out the candle (exhale).
- Recognize when you are stressed, name the stressor and talk to your body. Remember your body is likely responding before you’re even aware. Talk to your body like you would your child. “You’re feeling overwhelmed. There’s just a lot going on today. I hear you. We are OK. You can handle this.”
- Get outside and practice mindfulness. Use your senses to notice five things.
- Physical touch helps. Ask for a hug or pet a furry friend.
- Ask for help when you need it, and accept it when it’s offered.
- Engage any of your senses. Sometimes just lighting a candle can help calm your nervous system.
- Nurture yourself. Take a moment. Close your eyes. Place your hand over your heart. Notice the warmth of your skin and the beat of your heart. Breathe in and out. Thank your body for everything it does for you.
Mental health is a vital component to our physical health. Therapy is for everyone and, frankly, we all can benefit. You don’t have to do this alone. What you’re feeling is real and valid. You can feel better.
If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please seek help immediately. Suicidal ideation can feel isolating and alarming, but there are professionals who can help you. The National Suicide
Hotline at 800-273-8255 and 211 are both resources you can access any time. Additionally, you can go to your nearest emergency room and they can assist you.