Helping Us Heal

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected individuals in different ways. Adults have lost jobs, students have lost school as they know it, families have lost stability, and some of us have lost loved ones.

The pandemic has also traumatized entire communities. No matter what we’ve experienced individually, we all share the fact that our lives have been upended.

“Not being able to know what’s coming next can be really hard for people — that lack of consistency,” says Rachel Reinders, director of Alverno’s master of science in community psychology program. “A lot of people are grieving the loss of predictability and the lack of control that they felt they had in their lives.”

Mental health professionals, including Alverno alums and faculty, are skillfully and compassionately serving their communities during the pandemic, helping us adjust to our new normal and caring for people whose existing mental health needs may be exacerbated by new challenges.

Meeting people where they’re at

While the formality and structure of weekly therapy appointments, regular case manager home visits, support groups or medication provide mental health support for many people, other sources of support are also needed.

Reinders (above, far left) points to the value of informal support networks formed in gathering places such as churches, community centers, hair salons and gyms. Those gatherings weren’t occurring during Safer at Home, and as society begins to slowly reopen, they aren’t occurring in the same ways as before.

Take Beauty Masters, a salon on Milwaukee’s northwest side owned and operated by Simmone Kilgore ’13 (above, second from left). Kilgore is a licensed therapist and graduate of Alverno’s community psychology program, and she has helped the City of Milwaukee train barbers and hair stylists to advocate for their clients’ mental health. While her salon temporarily closed this spring, she still found ways to check on her salon clients.

“The other day I called a salon client to check in. She talked to me like she would if she was in the chair. We talked about her mom and her family and some concerns she had, and I wished her good luck,” Kilgore recalls. “All of my clients are in my mind and heart. I can’t do their hair right now, but I can still be that support.”

Ensuring access

Disparities driven by race and income mean that the pandemic is affecting community members differently. We have all experienced disruption; those with limited or no access to technology, health care, food and secure employment have struggled most.

“The problem is magnified because the people who are being hit hardest by this are the ones who are also probably least able to reach out for help or to access that help,” says Reinders. “We’re seeing this digital divide. People who have access to technology and are on the Internet are going to be better able to reach out and access support as compared to people who don’t.”

Anna Guerrero ’09 ’17 has seen these disparities in her work as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, which takes a community-based approach to providing medical, behavioral health and substance use care to anyone who comes in. Guerrero, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing at Alverno, cares for patients’ mental health by assessing and diagnosing disorders and prescribing medications.

“We’re seeing more depression, more anxiety and more insomnia. People are not doing what they were used to,” she says. “We’re finding that patients are having less time for themselves, especially those with children. And people who are not working are worried about finances.”

Guerrero (above, far right) is proud to continue caring for those patients during a challenging time. During the pandemic, she and her colleagues at Sixteenth Street have transitioned to virtual appointments.

“In telehealth, they can see me and I can see them. It provides some type of familiarity and comfort,” she says. “It doesn’t replace them being present in front of you, but it does help to be able to see them in their environment.”

Not all of her patients have the technology or Internet service to meet her online, however, and telephone appointments pose special challenges for mental health professionals.

“We rely on body language and vital signs. But I could not lay eyes on my patients,” Guerrero says. “I had to go based off of how I envisioned them and notice if there was any change in their voice and how they spoke to me.”

Okay to not be okay

Mary-Catherine Nimphius ’15 (above, second from right) is a faculty member in Alverno’s community psychology program. She also practices as a licensed therapist at the Center for Behavioral Medicine, where she primarily works with adults and adolescents with borderline personality disorders.

Regardless of our mental health history, many of us are experiencing similar feelings during the pandemic. Nimphius says it’s important to normalize this.

“During this pandemic, most of us are having anxiety and depression,” she says. “It’s okay to not be okay right now.”

With so much uncertainty about what the future holds, it’s difficult to determine what it will take for us to heal as individuals and as a community. Kilgore, who works as a trauma therapist, says empathy and patience will be essential.

“No matter how soon we open up society, some of us won’t reopen the way we left. Some of us will have less and be afraid. We’re always going to be looking over our shoulder for the next thing,” she says. “We need to be really mindful of the fact that it’s real for people. They can’t just move on and shouldn’t be forced to. Be kind and patient with others who don’t see things the way you see it. They don’t have to.”

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