MENTAL HEALTH

Derecho, pandemic, economy, protests: 2020 carries heavy mental health toll

A tree split by wind force Aug. 10 is seen along Fifth Avenue SW in Cedar Rapids.
A tree split by wind force Aug. 10 is seen along Fifth Avenue SW in Cedar Rapids.
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It is now more than a month out from the Aug. 10 derecho that tore through homes and trees in Cedar Rapids and beyond. For some people, the trauma of that day may only now be catching up to them.

“What people could be experiencing is the aftermath of the traumatic event — for children, the effects often show up two weeks after the event; for adults, four weeks,” said licensed marriage and family therapist and mental health first aid instructor Shoshannah Guerrero.

Drew Martel, director of crisis services at Foundation 2, said during the immediate aftermath of the storm, many people were operating on adrenaline and the need to take action. Now, people have come down from that state of mind and are realizing that life isn’t going back to normal any time soon.

“During the cleanup, you’re just on adrenaline, and you feel some sense of purpose, of contribution. It’s when that ends and everything quiets down that you start to integrate the true devastation the community went through,” said Tonya Hotchkin, a licensed therapist and vice president of clinical services at Tanager Place. “We have a bucket of how much stress we can take, and every little thing is a drip in the bucket. The derecho is like 30 drips. It feels like that bucket is overwhelmed.”

Some are still displaced from their homes, others are dealing with drawn out insurance paperwork, others may not be back to work if their employer’s building was damaged in the storm. And then there’s the physical evidence, inescapable, everywhere; tree debris still piled along roadsides, jagged stumps still standing in front of houses on every block, tarps covering roofs in every neighborhood.

“Initially after the storm there was a lot of seeking basic necessities; ice, fuel, food, and then there was a general feeling of kind of getting the work done, which I think Iowans are used to,” Martel said. “But then that kind of fades, and now we’re into this a month out, and in the greater context it kind of feels like, what’s next? People should look out for feelings of hopelessness — depression is kind of the common cold of mental illness.”

Seeking help

He said people should be looking out for both themselves and their loved ones for symptoms like irritability, a loss of interest in things that were previously enjoyable, sleep disturbances — either not being able to sleep or just wanting to stay in bed, relying on substances like alcohol to cope and suicidal ideation.

“Any time someone talks about suicide or hints at suicide — says things like ‘I don’t want to be here anymore, I’m sick of this.’ We would want family or friends to encourage them to get help.”

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He said people should feel comfortable reaching out for help, whether that is calling a crisis line, seeing a therapist or just talking to their support network. He also said making sure we’re taking care of ourselves — getting enough sleep, eating well and getting exercise are all important for our emotional health as much as our physical health. And he recommends things like getting outside for a walk and mindfulness practices available on apps like Headspace, Calm and others.

“It’s a lot less intimidating than meditation, you can do one or two minute exercises. Of course, they’re coping mechanisms — they’re not a fix,” he said. “There’s no magical fix. Being well is an art, even for people who don’t struggle with mental health.”

Jacob Christenson, CEO of Covenant Family Solutions and a licensed marriage and family therapist, said he wants people to see mental health help as routine and normal, not something to be stigmatized.

“One simple thing to keep in mind is if somebody is sitting there and wondering if they should talk to someone, it’s probably just a good idea to go talk to somebody,” he said.

Traumatic events compound each other

“I think one thing that people should be aware of is the cumulative effect of the different types of stressors we’re experiencing,” said Christenson.

He served in the armed forces in Afghanistan and said soldiers would experience post-traumatic stress from both single firefights and from the extended deployment.

Signs of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, and both constantly thinking about the trauma and wanting to avoid it all together. He said he experienced some of that himself — after leaving town for a couple of days, he drove back in, saw the tree debris and immediately wanted to leave again.

Christenson said people should realize having negative reactions after trauma is normal and to be expected.

“Talking to clients, co-workers and friends, a lot of people are having that letdown moment right now, finding that for two or three days they can’t really function. My response is, kind of embrace that and take the time you need ... The expectation is that we won’t handle it well,” he said. “We need to normalize that and understand it’s part of our recovery. If you’re not OK, that has no reflection on your worth, your ability or your future.”

The derecho is on top of preexisting worries, about the coronavirus pandemic, uncertainty of sending kids back to school or teaching them at home, job losses and furloughs and shutdowns. Then there are highly publicized videos of the deaths of Black people at the hands of police, the subsequent peaceful protests and riots alike, the political arguments about all of the above and an upcoming election. Oh, and staring at a sky hazy with smoke from forest fires out West and seeing news of hurricanes in the Gulf Coast.

In other words, it’s all a lot.

“Those are all traumatic events. Some of them are personal trauma, but we can also experience secondary trauma,” Guerrero said. “Especially in the helping fields, we can experience compassion fatigue.”

Compassion fatigue occurs when emotional or physical exhaustion leads to a lesser ability to feel the suffering of others. It is common among those who repeatedly experience the trauma of other people, such as nurses, caregivers, therapists and social workers.

Foundation 2 staffs the statewide Your Life Iowa crisis line, and Martel said calls to that line are up 100 percent over last year — they had received 6,000 calls as of this time last year, and this year they’ve received 12,000.

He said the many crises like the pandemic and the storm are compounded by the recession.

“There isn’t a lot of data around mental health following pandemics. But where there is a lot of data is financial crisis. And we are sitting in the midst of a massive financial crisis. The devastation that financial loss can do to people’s mental health is pretty well documented,” he said. “If you have the financial resources, yes, this is a difficult time, but having financial security is a pretty big advantage. If you’re worrying about where your family is going to be or if you might lose your business, that is an extreme amount of stress for everybody ... The people who already had the least resources are the ones carrying the heaviest burden.”

Hotchkin said it’s easy to compare your trauma to others and dismiss yours as “not so bad,” but that doesn’t lead to healing.

“We know the path to resilience is honoring your own experiences,” she said. “Its honoring two feelings — you can say, I want my internet back and … also say, ‘Oh my gosh, people have it worse than me.’ ... My biggest advice is give yourself grace.”

Kids are experiencing trauma, too

Guerrero recommended parents watch for signs of trauma in children. During a thunderstorm that happened at their home near Vinton after the derecho, her 8-year-old son was particularly anxious. She said it was important to acknowledge his fears and help him find ways to cope with them.

“He’s been tracking the weather. When the storm came through, he was awake and in my room. We talked him through it and were able to get him back to bed. And the next morning it was important to go back to talk about that and create that safety plan,” she said.

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The safety plan included talking about the weather radio and what the different messages from it and the meteorologists on TV meant, knowing when they would go to the basement and what they would bring. Making the plan together empowered her kids to feel a sense of control and to bring a sense of stability, she said.

She said for kids and adults alike, it is good to just check in on emotions and our mental state. She said after the storm she scheduled a check-in with her therapist, just to make sure everything was OK, not unlike one would an annual physical.

“What am I experiencing and how is it affecting me? We want that to be a conversation we can have as just part of our lives,” she said. “Just to having these conversations, we’re able to reduce stigma around mental illness. These conversations are really important.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

Where to get help

Foundation 2 crisis line: Talk with trained counselors 24 hours a day by calling (319) 362-2174 in the Cedar Rapids area or 1-(800) 332-4224 anywhere else in Iowa. Chat with counselor by text at 1-(800) 332-4224 and follow the prompts. Text chat is available Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Both lines also are suicide helplines. Find more resources at foundation2.org.

• Covenant Family Solutions: Offering free 30-minute mental health coaching sessions, either in person, via telehealth or via telephone. Call (319) 261-2292 or visit covenantfamilysolutions.com to schedule.

• COVID Recovery Iowa: Free virtual counseling and assistance for all Iowans affected by COVID‑19. Call 1-(844) 777-WARM or visit covidrecoveryiowa.org.

• Iowa Concern Hotline: A 24-hour a day, 7-day a week free, confidential resource for anyone with concerns or questions about farm finances, crisis and disaster response and personal health issues. Access to an attorney is also available to help provide legal education. Call 1-800-447-1985.

• Tanager Place: Offers mental health services for youth. Call (319) 365-9164 or visit tanagerplace.org/treatment to learn more.

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