Counselors Provide Calm in Pandemic Storm

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

This article is part of a series about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on various aspects of Holy Name Province.  Previous articles explored the impact on Mass and prayer, college teaching, fraternal lifeoutreach to people in need, and elementary schools in parishes where friars provide pastoral and administrative service.

The numbers are staggering – more than one-third of the nation’s population finds itself in the grips of perpetual fear, anxiety, and depression brought on by the global pandemic. Mental health helplines are reporting triple and quadruple percentage increases in calls since the coronavirus outbreak. Pastoral counselors and psychotherapists, like those at St. Francis Counseling Center on West 31st Street in New York City and at St. Anthony Shrine Counseling Service on Arch Street in Boston, are bracing for a pandemic of a different kind: a surge in mental illness that many believe will have the deadly combined force of a tsunami and a superstorm.

At the St. Francis Counseling Center, not only have the emotional needs of its regular clients intensified in the past few months, but the center has seen a steady increase in calls each week from new clients seeking pastoral counseling and mental health support.

St. Francis Church on West 31st Street in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Jim McIntosh, OFM)

“Early into the pandemic, the calls were anxiety-related. But as we enter a critical chapter of this health crisis, the calls are now about depression. Prolonged isolation and unemployment, uncertainty about the future, health fears – collectively they are taking a toll on our mental health. People are experiencing a new type of mourning – the loss of normalcy in their lives,” said Julie Berwick, director of St. Francis Counseling Center, which provides affordable psychotherapy, as well as marriage, couple, bereavement, and pastoral counseling.

“As things return to a semblance of normalcy, it won’t be the normal as we knew it. How will education look when school starts in the fall, how will Mass be celebrated, when will the economy come back?” Berwick said. “With all of this uncertainty, the number of New Yorkers reaching out for counseling and mental health services will surge this summer – and depending on when the pandemic is actually over, these numbers may not peak until later this year and beyond.”

She continued, “With the pandemic having long-lasting effects on mental health and psychological well-being, people need to talk about what is happening – and what will happen next. We are at a crossroads, and more people are reaching out for coping mechanisms to adjust to this new normal. They’re dealing with stress, loss, grief, and maybe domestic violence, with people sheltering in place for so long. People are also becoming contemplative, thinking more about what they want to do with their lives.”

Berwick called this an intense historical moment, noting that pandemics are known to alter the courses of history. “This pandemic will be no different. We are seeing it in the mandate for racial and social justice,” said the director of the center, which was founded by two friars and a social worker in 1998 and is now one of the few Catholic-based mental health service providers in New York – and part of the larger human services component at the 31st Street Parish of St. Francis of Assisi, which also includes affordable housing and immigration, food and financial support.

Greater Demand at the Shrine
With the coronavirus still raging nationwide, chronic pandemic-induced stress is producing feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and despair that is proving to be overwhelming even to individuals who normally have a solid grip on life. For those already suffering from emotional struggles, the fear and uncertainties caused by the pandemic can be paralyzing.

“Of course, staying healthy is still everyone’s concern, but at this point, people aren’t even talking or worrying so much about getting sick. They’re talking more about the drastic changes in their lives. They’re addressing the challenges of working from home and being the primary educator for their children after schools went to remote learning,” said Paul O’Keeffe, OFM, director of St. Anthony Shrine Counseling Service, which provides counseling and psychotherapy to individuals, families and couples experiencing a variety of emotional struggles – from anxiety, depression, and loss, to addiction and relationship crisis.

“Our counseling services are going to be in greater demand for a while because everyone has been hit hard by the pandemic. It’s across the board – all cultures, all socioeconomic backgrounds – but especially those living on the margins,” said Paul, who provides the bulk of the counseling at the Shrine, which also has two part-time counselors – one who specializes in family and child counseling, and the other who serves the Latino population.

Paul O’Keeffe (center) and other members of the Shrine’s Counseling Service. (Photo from St. Anthony Shrine’s website)

In addition to running the counseling service, Paul is associate director of Holy Name Province’s Franciscan Missionary Union and HNP’s moderator of missions and evangelization – the latter position which has him leading mission trips to Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, all of which have been canceled indefinitely.

Travel restrictions and sheltering in place at the friary have enabled Paul – who professed his solemn vows as a Franciscan in 2010 – to take on a number of new clients through a website called Psychology Today, as well as from among those who regularly worship at the church on Arch Street.

Although the St. Francis Counseling Center and the St. Anthony Counseling Service are rooted in Catholic Franciscan tradition, clients are both Catholic and non-Catholic and are diverse in age, cultural background, and economic status. Those who receive mental health and spiritual counseling under these Franciscan programs find a sense of peace while facing their emotional challenges. What distinguishes these services from other mental health programs and facilities is their Franciscan-driven compassion.

Spirituality Connection to Mental Health
Franciscan ideals are behind the essence of the services at St. Francis Counseling Center. “We welcome the stranger – in this case, people with mental health struggles who often feel alone and isolated, and with no one else to turn to. We help them sort things out, organize their lives, and set goals,” Berwick said.

“Spirituality is a hallmark of mental health. People are encouraged to explore their faith in therapy because spiritual practice is a coping skill. Because of our Franciscan roots, there is a strong faith component for those seeking spiritual direction – how people use Mass and confession, and how they see God and their image of God,” said Paul, who has been stationed at St. Anthony Shrine since 2014.

Spiritual direction is focused on scripture and pastoral techniques, promoting growth in faith through prayer and a closer relationship with God. “Spirituality is a vital component of our mental health care. We use clinical approaches that incorporate spiritual components,” Berwick explained.

Spirituality and health are intimately connected. (Image by 1388843 from Pixabay)

To help them cope during these challenging times, clients are encouraged to put their feelings into words and to identify stress triggers. “We encourage them to cope through prayer and gratitude. Gratitude may seem odd at a time like this,” said Berwick, “but think about what you have – it could be your family, a roof over your head, or the resources to survive financially because you still have a job. Or it could be gratitude for oneself and others, and for respect and love.”

Although both had to shut down their offices and suspend in-person sessions indefinitely, bringing their services to a complete halt was not an option at either of the Franciscan counseling centers. Sessions were quickly switched to phone and video-conferencing platforms, including Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime.

“It was imperative that we continue to maintain our counseling services without interruption at a time when clients need emotional support more than ever. We may not be able to provide the in-person, face-to-face experience – which is vital to mental health services – but through all the chaos and upheaval, at least we are maintaining the stability and continuity that is critical to mental health care,” Berwick said. “We are their lifeline and a connection to the familiarity that they need.”

Paul said he has also maintained a robust schedule of video conferences throughout the pandemic with many new and regular clients in Boston.

Triggering Past Trauma
Not only has the pandemic been a devastating experience, for many it has also re-triggered past trauma. Counselors at both Franciscan mental health services are finding that the coronavirus crisis is stirring memories of personal trauma – such as past episodes of domestic abuse and chemical dependence – or post-traumatic stress disorder related to a more global occurrence, like Sept. 11.

Statistical models related to natural disasters, financial collapses, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks illustrate that the effects of the pandemic on mental health – in the form of substance abuse, drug overdoses, depression, suicide, and PTSD – likely won’t surface for weeks, months and even years down the road.

The virus has been here for months, but people are still in the initial shock phase, says Berwick, which is why coronavirus-related PTSD – such as hyper-vigilance, hyper-emotional reaction, flashbacks, and sleep disturbances – has not yet taken root.

Counseling can help during troubling times. (Image by Tiyo Prasetyo from Pixabay)

“People are still numb, they’re still in denial. We have to be vigilant for things like intense feelings of distress, flashbacks, nightmares, loss of interest in daily activities and life, feeling emotionally numb and detached from others, and a sense of not leading a normal life or having a positive outlook about the future,” she said. “We can’t let these feelings consume us.”

Berwick added, “People are feeling jittery. If you have to go out for groceries, you may be feeling nervous about getting too close to people. These feelings will linger. Over time they will lessen, especially when people talk about it and share their thoughts and anxieties.”

The counselors from the New York and Boston centers offered advice on how to avoid feelings of hopelessness, despair, dislocation, and loneliness. For starters, don’t overdose on the news media. Take in enough information to stay informed, but don’t obsess watching the news, they said. Make time to go outside for fresh air, practicing social distancing, and following other safety guidelines. Incorporate breathing and stretching exercises in your daily routine, and reassure yourself through a coping mechanism called “self-talk” – which is an affirmation of one’s well-being and safety at the moment.

Another coping mechanism is staying connected to others. “Talk to people whether by phone or online, grocery shop for an elderly neighbor, volunteer at a local outreach program. Nothing will take you out of depression faster than helping others,” Berwick said.