Published May 12th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
These days, mental health professionals in Kansas City find themselves virtually eye to eye with their clients.
Since the coronavirus swept the globe and shut down cities in a matter of months, many in the mental health field say they now share experiences with their clients’ “communal trauma.” Yet, day by day, therapists and counselors continue to conduct sessions through phone calls, Zoom and FaceTime, checking off their roster of clients one by one.
And their rosters are growing.
The number of crisis calls has been rising since stay-at-home orders, says Terry Trafton, CEO of CommCARE, a free, 24/7 crisis helpline and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline affiliate. Trafton says the calls are “sporadic and irregular.”
“Some days we will have a normal call volume and the next three days we will experience an increase of 20 to 50 more calls per day, which equates to a 120% to 170% increase in calls,” Trafton wrote in an email.
That’s the case across the U.S. Since March, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has seen five times more activity and the Crisis Text Line’s volume is up 40%, according to an NPR report.
CommCARE covers 44 counties served by the 816 and 660 area codes in Missouri and was recently awarded a grant from the COVID-19 Great KC fund.
The random pattern of incoming calls makes it difficult to schedule staff. Trafton also notes the calls are “intensifying and lengthening” with concerns around coronavirus, adding that callers are anxious, depressed and some show signs of suicidal ideation.
Mental health professionals in Kansas City are feeling the weight of the pandemic, too.
Burt Rogers, a therapist at the AdHoc Group Against Crime and Midtown Psychological Services, says he misses the mental rinse of being able to leave home, commute to work and return home to be with his wife and two young children. His commute is currently a 13-step walk upstairs.
“The dynamics are really different,” Rogers says.
Often these past few weeks, Rogers has coached clients to connect with facial expressions and to make eye contact during video sessions.
“Our entire social engagement relies on eye contact and social cues, so engaging some of those things (during FaceTime or Zoom) is important,” he says. “When you feel that excitement check why you feel like that. Notice that.”
Like CommCARE, Rogers has witnessed an increase in calls for help and gets flurries of emails from people desperate to talk to someone. At his group practice, the online counseling system crashes “constantly,” he says. And his one pro bono spot is already filled.
For clients who are most concerned about the financial impact, he offers a sliding scale option to make therapy accessible.
Rogers also notes another change — his clients ask how he’s doing. While he says he is OK, Rogers and his wife – a therapist for young children – employ their coping strategies, such as exercise and deep breathing.
Rogers specializes in homicide-based trauma and high-risk cases, specifically folks in the black and brown community. Before that he was a caseworker, so he saw first-hand the effects that uncertainty, violence and trauma had on minority communities in Kansas City. This is different.
During the pandemic, he’s felt the stresses of uncertainty that he once counseled his patients through.
JaMeshia Sykes, a holistic mental health therapist at Thriving Intent noticed a drop in caseload when the pandemic first hit.
“Finances were impacted (and) clients were apprehensive about telehealth,” she says.
But then, as happened to Rogers, people began to sign up for sessions through her online counseling platform.
In some ways, being personally affected by the pandemic has boosted Sykes’ empathy and made her more relatable with her clients. Conversations have mostly been about adjusting to the new normal, what to do with time at home and, more generally, how to cope.
“Relational issues are coming up in my sessions,” she says. “Prior to COVID (issues with friends or family) may have been avoided, so they were being swept under the rug. But now some of my clients are having to confront those things and having those conversations.”
Sykes says most clients have struggled with how to grapple with negative and positive emotions. Some people tried to focus on the positive, but that backfired.
“I think a lot of people move a lot to gratitude… and when you rush to gratitude, sometimes you minimize your own emotions like anxiety, grief.” she explains. “Understand that you can be upset, you can miss your friends, and also express gratitude. It’s not one or the other.”
She advises clients to acknowledge rather than suppress emotions and added: “Nothing grows without water so crying is very therapeutic.”
Taryn Hodison runs Anchor Counseling and Consulting Services in Kansas City.
Since shifting her own mental health services online, Hodison has been creatively using social media. On top of counseling sessions, she tries to connect clients with other therapists by posting to a community Facebook page called BIPOC Advocates, run by social worker Megh Chakrabarti.
She admits working from home has affected her.
“For me, it’s been an unusual place, (a) strange headspace to be in. Because when we work with our clients we are used to being on the periphery…,” Hodison explains. “On a micro level, everyone is feeling different things in their households but on a global scale we’re all feeling the same thing.”
Even she finds it difficult to wake up the same time she did pre-pandemic. But, she advises, it’s important to prioritize little things like taking a shower or brushing teeth.
Since stay-at-home orders were enacted in March, she decided to end her lease for her office and conduct sessions from home. Hodison specializes in trauma-focused care for the African American community, non-black people of color and LGBTQ individuals.
“I am fortunate that I am able to work from home,” Hodison says. “But I know there’s a smaller percentage of black and brown folks who are able to.”
This pandemic has highlighted the health disparities and access to care, she says, “And that’s enough to create a lot of stress.”
Pandemic stress, brought on by unemployment, stay-at-home orders, distrust of the news or juggling homeschool while working, is an added weight.
Melanie Arroyo, an art therapist and staff counselor at University of Missouri-Kansas City agrees.
She’s seen two extremes among her clients who are mostly Hispanic or Latinx. On one end of the spectrum, some of her clients are in denial. On the other is heightened anxiety that has prompted panic attacks.
The main factor for increased anxiety is misinformation. Arroyo explains some of her clients have limited access to information in Spanish about what the coronavirus is and how to take care of oneself.
Many times, the news is overwhelming or confusing. So misinformation gets shared through family group messages on WhatsApp. She’s even received these messages and had to dispel conspiracy theories.
There’s a need that isn’t being met, and clients who don’t have access to the internet or information in their language grow anxious.
Arroyo suggests channeling that energy into something creative or productive, such as making masks. The other factor she says is affecting her and her clients is lack of connectivity.
While dynamics haven’t changed too much since conducting remote sessions, she’s had to pivot her methods. Some clients don’t feel safe or as emotionally vulnerable at home, so she conducts therapy “from the cupholder in their cars.”
For clients who stopped therapy altogether, she sends lists of book and video recommendations.
“We’re figuring this out as we go. We hurt in relationships, and we heal in relationships. This is why this pandemic hurts even more,” Arroyo says. “This isolation is so necessary, I’m not going to play that down. But at the same time, I will validate that this is stressful because we’re made for connection.”
+ First Step for HELP is a free, 24-hour crisis helpline for any Missouri resident experiencing an emotional or behavioral crisis. Call 1-888-279-8188
+ Headquarters Counseling Center provides Kansans free, 24/7 emotional support on the phone and online through their chat program. It is the only National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to serve all of Kansas. Call 785-841-2345. Or chat by going to CrisisChat.org.
+ Most employers have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). It is a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems. (Check with your employer for details.)
+ Solace House is a center for grief and healing that supports children, individuals and families who have been affected by the death of a loved one, whether anticipated or sudden and unexpected. Call: 913-341-0318
“I seek strength to carry on. I seek courage to move beyond pain. I seek faith to believe happiness will come again. Solace is my goal. I can find it. I can help others discover it.” — Solace House Affirmation
+ Crossroads Hospice offers multiple support group opportunities within a 60-mile radius. Please contact Jeff O’Dell for group locations. Call: 816-268-2634 or 1-888-603-6673
+ If you or someone you love call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255); en Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889. It’s free, confidential and open 24/7.
+ Or, if you’re a veteran in crisis or a concerned friend and family member you can call or text the Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1
+ When you’re in a moment of crisis, talking isn’t always the preferred method so if you need to chat with someone, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741