IOWA DERECHO 2020

Now with derecho, 2020 continues bringing mental health woes for Iowans

'Each thing is fairly significant on its own'

A message written on a driveway in Marion, Iowa, on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A message written on a driveway in Marion, Iowa, on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — When Cassie Finley moved from Oregon to Iowa City last fall to pursue a University of Iowa graduate degree, she found a local mental health practitioner to continue therapy she’d been getting for years to process past trauma.

And then the coronavirus began to spread.

And the university bumped classes online. And she found herself alone, for months. And she watched protesters flood the streets over social injustices, including friends in her home state — where violence made national news daily.

And then the university committed her to in-person instruction this fall, despite her COVID-19 fears. And she visited the classroom where in a week she’ll be with at least 28 other students.

And Monday arrived, delivering a historic 100-plus mph derecho that blew out her power, internet and cell service for days — hampering her already-hindered ability to connect with others and delaying last-minute preparations for school.

And months of new trauma intensified the old.

“Everything was exacerbated,” Finley, 23, said. “It had been mild depression, mild anxiety throughout. But then everything shut down, and it all just suddenly seemed unbearable.

“I don’t understand what’s going on. I feel physically incapable of doing anything for more than five minutes,” she said.

Finley’s not alone, according to local mental health providers who have seen an uptick in a wide range of clients seeking support in recent months — from isolated residents experiencing depression to those with health concerns or job losses adding to their anxiety.

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“It’s just one more thing on top of what we’ve been dealing with in 2020,” UI Health Care clinical psychologist Stacey Pawlak told The Gazette, noting she’s been sharing the you’re-not-alone sentiment with patients.

“We’ve had this virus, and that’s caused all these consequences,” she said. “Then we’ve had social injustice issues coming up and unrest, and it’s been also challenging and difficult. And now to have this. Each thing is fairly significant on its own, but then they add up together.”

Even the most resilient people can find themselves in a subpar mental state, Pawlak said.

“It’s sort of like you’re a rubber band and you can kind of stretch and resiliently move with various stressors,” she said. “But as you get pulled and stretched too many times, you start to lose that elasticity, and it’s almost like you can’t quite snap back.”

Mental health supports have been high on the list of services local entities, schools and public health operations have promoted since spring and following Monday’s storm.

One Marion-based mental health provider — Covenant Family Solutions — earlier this past week announced free 30-minute “mental health coaching sessions” for those affected by the derecho storm.

“We are dedicated to walking alongside individuals as they work toward mental wellness,” the company’s CEO Jacob Christenson said. “Monday’s storm tested and put that mission into action in a way we could have never predicted.”

Post-derecho, Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach highlighted “Iowa Concern” — a hotline offering a range of services, including help managing stress and depression.

Physical effects

Mental health concerns that go untreated can worsen and morph into physical problems — trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal problems such as nausea and heartburn, headaches, migraines, and general body aches and pains.

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“The brain is really tied into the GI system,” Pawlak said. “And then when you’re dealing with a virus, too, it’s like, ‘Is this just me feeling anxious or do I have some illness?’ So it escalates it all.”

Children — especially younger ones — can be resilient and more insulated than adults, according to Pawlak. But as time ticks on without answers, without freedoms, with new pressures and stressors on family members, they, too, can find themselves anxious.

“They’re seeing it impacting their parents’ lives,” she said. “Especially when a parent has maybe lost their job or their business or there are financial concerns.”

Situations with already-abusive parents can get worse, Pawlak said, and it can happen without the watchful eyes of mandatory reporters in school and day care settings.

“We’re not catching those sorts of things,” she said. “So kids are feeling the impact.”

College freshmen face more disruption

And then there are the freshmen descending on Iowa’s colleges and universities — or who were about to before they received a message last week urging them to stay home until further notice.

“We will keep you posted when it’s safe to return to campus,” Cedar Rapids-based Mount Mercy University advised on its Facebook page after announcing a delay to the start of the fall semester.

Coe, Cornell, and Kirkwood Community colleges also delayed the start of classes as they clean up from the storm and remain — in some cases — without power.

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For freshmen who do make it to campus after leaving home for the first time and are pining for friends and social connection, doing so under isolation or — at least — distancing orders can be scary and anxiety-invoking, according to Barry Schreier, UI professor and director of University Counseling Service.

“This is the class of students who, after 12 years of school, didn’t get high school graduation,” Schreier said.

He noted UI freshmen typically participate in a block party and other orientation activities. They traditionally stand on the field inside Kinnick Stadium in the shape of an “I.”

“So they didn’t graduate high school in the way that was initially promised. They didn’t orient to campus in the way that was initially promised,” he said. “This class is the class probably with the most significant disruption around those sorts of transitions, and that can compound. And we’ll just have to see how the first-year students play it out.”

Demand for mental health services has been on the rise across the UI campus — prompting it to increase funding and resources for the department in recent years.

Even with widespread budget cuts this summer, divided across the university, Schreier said his center has not yet lost any funding.

Heading into fall, UI Counseling has counselors specifically committed to residence halls, student athletics and the colleges of business and dentistry. They’ll be doing everything virtually.

Search for silver linings

The University of Northern Iowa Counseling Center, acknowledging “depression grows in isolation,” is urging its community to pursue methods of connecting even during this time of distancing. That center, too, is offering both virtual and in-person therapy — done using face coverings and 6 feet of distance.

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That campus is planning “Mindfulness Mondays” involving outdoor walks in safely-spaced groups, said UNI Counseling Center Director Jennifer Schneiderman.

Schreier, in offering tips to maintain mental health, suggested simply acknowledging feelings and asking questions about where they’re coming from. Take solace in the knowledge that you’re not alone — even when you physically are.

Control the things you can control in what feels like an out-of-control year — eating well, taking walks and sleeping.

“Looking around and seeing the devastation after the storm, you can say, well, you know what, I’m still alive. I’m still breathing,” UIHC’s Pawlak said. “My house is a mess. I don’t have power. I don’t know what I’m going to do here. But find that smallest kind of kernel of hope.”

Access area mental health services at:

Iowa State University’s Iowa Concern network

National Association of Mental Illness-Linn County

Foundation 2

University of Iowa Counseling

Iowa State University Counseling

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University of Northern Iowa Counseling

Iowa suicide hotlines

More information about the free derecho mental health sessions

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