By RENEE WEBB, Content and Design Coordinator, Lumen Media

Published with permission from Dawn Prosser, Director of Communications, Diocese of Sioux City, Lumen Media

As Mental Health Awareness Month is observed this month, experts in the field are well aware of the extra strain caused by the ongoing pandemic.

“COVID-19 created a sense of ‘lack of control’ for all of us,” noted Amy Bloch, executive director at Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Sioux City. “We did not know when it would be over, who to trust with information, isolation and loneliness. It impacted everyone in different ways and challenged our ability to manage stress.”

Rhonda Brown, a therapist at Catholic Charities in Sioux City, said she believes the pandemic has affected “all of us in many different ways.”

“When working from home we don’t get out of the house like in the past,” she said. “We as humans need to have a relationship with others for our emotional and mental health. During the past year that was almost impossible to do because of the quarantine.”

In addition, Brown said many people lost loved ones during this time – some due to the virus and some for other reasons – but in either case they were not able to grieve in the “normal” way.

“During this time, I lost my favorite aunt to COVID-19 and they could not have a service for her,” noted the therapist. “It has been hard believing that she is no longer here because there were no services.”

For persons already struggling with mental health issues, Bloch said the pandemic only intensified them or caused them to go untreated for longer periods of time, which in turn created more problems in their lives. For others – adults and children – the pandemic caused mental health problems.

“The most common have been depression and anxiety, which were caused by feelings of loneliness, fear or stress,” she said. “Some kids experienced neglect or abuse and because they weren’t in school, it wasn’t identified.”

Brown pointed out that she sees many children from ages 10 to 15 and school has been hard on them in the past year, having to go back and forth between virtual learning and face-to-face learning.

“I have seen children with anxiety, depression and a lot of anger,” she said. “I have noticed that the children who are learning from home and do not have interactions with their peers seem to be more depressed and anxious. I know that when I was home and had no contact with my co-workers that it was hard.”

Individuals facing eviction or in need of financial assistance for utilities, food, medications or other basic needs almost doubled over the past year, noted Bloch.

“People lost jobs, had to stay home with kids who were unable to go to school or daycare and lost loved ones; all of which created financial crisis,” said the director. “We also saw and continue to see a significant increase in people with mental health issues.”

The Center for Disease Control reported that 31 percent of adults reported an increase in feelings of anxiety and depression and 11 percent of adults reported thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days (April 2021), which was double from the previous year.

“Catholic Charities is hiring two additional therapy staff in order to meet the number of adults and children who are presenting with mental health symptoms,” said Bloch.

Brown mentioned more people are struggling but they may not even realize the connection between their struggles and the pandemic. While many of her clients are children, she noticed she is seeing more women with anxiety and depression than in the past.

Not long after the pandemic began last year, Catholic Charities worked to continue to serve its clients. They shifted to telehealth services both through video and by phone.

Since the start of COVID-19, Catholic Charities in the diocese has provided over 4,600 telehealth therapy sessions.

“One of the positive things that have come out of the pandemic is that there is now legislation being discussed that would allow telehealth therapy to be paid at the same rate as face-to-face, which previously it did not,” said Bloch. “This would allow families in rural settings to access mental health services, when previously it was much more difficult because of the shortage of practitioners in small towns. It has been passed by the House and is currently with the Senate waiting approval.”

As a therapist, Brown acknowledged initially it was a big adjustment to work from home and learn how to use Zoom.

“It was a very unique way of doing therapy and it was harder at times just because of the connections with the internet and being able to see facial expressions,” said Brown, who added that working with children through telehealth was an even greater challenge at times. “It was hard working with children when they were consumed with jumping on their bed or cleaning their room.”

The therapist has taught many parenting classes and during the quarantine she taught one via Zoom. Students attended from all over the country and that was a plus, but on the other side, Brown could tell she didn’t have the same connection with the students as when the class is taught in person.

For anyone struggling with mental health issues, she encouraged them to seek help.

“I would also suggest that this is the time that we all need to take care of ourselves by making sure that we get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, have time to ourselves, develop a spiritual connection and maintain relationships,” said Brown.

Asking for help, added Bloch, takes “strength and courage; it is not a sign of weakness. We offer confidential services both face-to-face and through telehealth. There is hope.”