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Local agencies provide services, ways to handle mental health during pandemic

Enid News & Eagle - 2/28/2021

Feb. 28—ENID, Okla. — As many are finding ways to navigate through uncertainty and changes in routines during the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health services in Enid remain steadfast in their mission to guide and help patients.

It's important for people to take care of their mental health as they would their physical health, said Catina Sundvall, a counselor at Frame of Mind Counseling Center.

"When we seek out mental health treatment, it's like going to the doctor because something hurts," Sundvall said. "It's important to recognize when what you're doing isn't working, and you need some additional help to help you get through."

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began in March, agencies temporarily closed and established telehealth services while slowly opening their offices back up.

As people were finding a "new normal," Rebecca Kroeker, president and executive director of ATS Counseling Agency, said appointment cancellations increased.

Justin Simmons, executive director and counselor at Making a Difference, agreed, saying business slowed for a few months, but now the agency is getting more and more referrals, which he said is something he anticipated.

"People can hunker down into their homes and stuff, but then whenever they start (emerging from COVID-19 shutdown) ... (that) has really increased referrals this year," Simmons said.

One example is the back-to-school routine, he said.

"Homeschooling is a lot of pressure for parents, it's a lot of pressure for kids, it's a lot of pressure for teachers," he said, adding that going back to the class, being away from parents, dealing with social anxiety can all be mentally taxing.

Sundvall said the increased worries and anxiety of this past year have affected not only patients but the counselors, too, as they dealt with their own concerns and tried to find different ways to communicate and help clients.

Telehealth is an avenue agencies utilized in the first few months of the pandemic and still do, though some clients are being seen in-person at some agencies.

Telehealth won't be going away as COVID-19 diminishes. ATS began using a HIPAA-compliant software called, which provides virtual check-ins, waiting rooms and appointments, and Kroeker said that because no account is required to use the software, it "takes away barriers" for people.

"I think the new normal for therapy is going to be more and more people using the technology and not having to drive to their appointments," Kroeker said. "It also gives them more confidentiality. If there is a benefit from COVID-19, it would be making services more accessible for people and pushing people to utilize the technology."

A system of support

Sundvall said the pandemic took away "important human connections," and loneliness and isolation is something Kroeker said impacted a lot of people — and still does — as they work from home or participate in distance learning.

One topic often discussed with patients is having a support system, Kroeker said, and as those systems are being removed, it creates a "big shift in life balance."

"I'll do an activity with clients where I have them draw a pie chart, and the different pieces of the pie would represent different aspects that are important to them in their life, whether that's family, friends, hobbies, church," Kroeker said. "Now, that graph has shifted for so many of us, where it's not where we want it to be — our lives don't feel like they're in balance."

Simmons said at first being stuck at home may have been good for some families as they slowed down their routines and got to spend more time together, but for others, the pandemic added more pressure and took away helpful outlets outside of the homes, like counseling sessions, school, work and activities like soccer practice.

For parents, Simmons said, one problem some had was navigating their children's school work — in some instances dealing with bad video connections, Wi-Fi issues, helping with homework and making sure homework is turned in. This added stress takes a toll on people, and Simmons said in his almost 25 years of experience, this year has been most challenging for people in dealing with their own mental health and self-care, and then "having something left to give to other people."

Simmons has seen an increase in COVID-19-related anxiety — people over-washing their hands or not touching anything in stores because they are "terrified of getting COVID-19," and fear passing the virus to loved ones.

"That's become a whole new level nobody's ever seen," he said. "I've never treated somebody that had anxiety because they were scared they were going to catch the flu or something."

'Put your own oxygen mask on first'

Simmons said sometimes the best boost to mental health is to take some personal time. For parents struggling to "get away from the kids" he suggests scheduling something alone or with a partner.

"I think one of the trends that I'm seeing this year is people are just draining themselves and not filling their own bucket back up, and so they need to find ways to fill that bucket back up," he said.

This past year has brought a lot of uncertainty, and Kroeker echoed Simmons in saying it's important to seek out services and for people to take care of themselves during this "abnormal time."

"If you're on an airplane, you put your own oxygen mask on first before you help your kids, before you can help others," she said. "Same thing in self-care — taking care of ourselves."

Kroeker said maintaining a new normalcy, like starting a new hobby or having a defined workspace in homes, may be of some help, as can using techniques and coping skills like deep breathing and trying to reframe negative thoughts into something positive.

"Our thoughts aren't always the truth," she said. "If our thoughts are saying, 'My life is awful right now,' then you can reframe that into, 'I'm going to get through this. I've been through difficult times in the past, and we're making progress toward getting out of this pandemic' — reframing those negative thoughts and not letting them take our entire day or week or however long that might go on."

Humans are "creatures of habit," Simmons said, so it's healthy to develop a routine that can include things such as a set dinner time, and when to do schoolwork and things that include self-development, exercise and relationship-building activities.

As mental health is affected by school, work, COVID-19, relationships or anything else, Sundvall said she reminds people that this is a time unlike any other, that it's important to remember what can and can't be controlled and "affording ourselves some grace."

"We're going to be OK — we just have to take time and be kind to ourselves."

Seeking help

These agencies offer a variety of services — including outpatient counseling, marriage counseling, family psychotherapy, group work and more — to children, teenagers and adults, and focus on areas including relationship issues, trauma/post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, grief and more.

Simmons advised people to not be afraid to ask for help and to not let stigma around seeking out mental health services be an issue — let somebody "help guide you through this part of your life."

The services, he said, are worth the time and money because it helps increase comfort levels, abilities to function, deal with other people and to maintain mental wellbeing.

New patients at Making a Difference, Frame of Mind and ATS usually can be seen by a counselor within a week or two, though that can fluctuate depending on availability. Simmons said if somebody needs to be seen quicker, agencies will refer clients to other available agencies so they can get started with treatment.

"Most people don't want to wait around a month or two to deal with panic attacks or depression," Simmons said. "A lot of times, by the time they finally break down and give us a call, they need help right now, and so we try not to put people on a waiting list. As long as somebody in town is available, we are more than willing to share that and get the person in for immediate care wherever they need it."

Making a Difference has five counselors available and can be reached at (580) 233-5900 or at ATS has 13 counselors, including Kroeker, and its Enid phone number is (580) 242-4673. Frame of Mind has four total counselors, Sundvall said, and can be reached at (580) 231-6153.

Anyone experiencing an emergency should call 911. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also is available 24 hours a day at (800) 273-8255. Oklahoma has many crisis hotlines, resources and websites available for anyone needing help, including HeartLine 2-1-1 and the Northwest Center for Behavioral Health hotline, (800) 545-0518.

Kelci McKendrick is police and court reporter for the Enid News & Eagle.

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