The novel coronavirus pandemic has impacted the physical health of public and health care workers in a multitude of ways; however, patients and providers within mental health services have been dealing with difficulty in processing each day as well.
Bertha White, clinical therapist and president and CEO of Agent of Change, LLC Mental Health Services & Resources, said the pandemic’s effects on mental health services have been devastating. She said the government mandated closures that were put into place and tightened beginning in March caused more than a disruption to the services provided.
“Most of us have never experienced a pandemic before,” White told Southern Maryland News. “The confusion, fear and loss have been unfathomable and truly traumatic for so many of us. It’s hard to believe how may generational traditions that mark change, progress, transition and achievement weren’t realized and have been left void.”
While normal operations for Agent of Change, which is based in Waldorf, came to an abrupt stop, White and her colleagues recognized that mental health services are an indispensable necessity. She said while her business continuity plan has changed, the process for phone consultations, scheduling sessions and reminder calls remained the same.
“It was necessary to first assure clients that access to their mental health services at Agent of Change remained available,” White said. “Second, we evaluated the means for which each client could engage in telehealth sessions, then provided instructions on use as needed.”
While White had her tele-mental health certification and training in place before the pandemic, she said creating and controlling a therapeutic environment can be challenging with telehealth sessions. She said there are always concerns with internet availability and HIPPA compliance.
“Due to client insecurities and limited or no access to the internet or computers, therapists are forced to engage by phone much more than customary,” White said. “Telehealth sessions also present obstacles for examining and assessing mental status. There are components of assessment that cannot be observed or fully described unless a person is in your physical presence.”
While most of White’s clients preferred in-person therapy, she said many have made an effort to adjust and maintain their care. She said others have placed treatment on hold, for a number of reasons.
Agent of Change has seen a spike in new clients seeking support for mild to severe cognitive, mood and behavioral changes that impair daily functioning. Some of these changes have met diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorders, or other conditions requiring clinical attention.
“Reported problems seem to correlate with learning about the global pandemic and experiencing the effects in everything we do,” White said. “In many cases, these experiences have resulted in anxiety, depression, symptoms of trauma and complicated grief.”
White said there has been an increase of children and teens taking part in Agent of Change’s services, looking to work through behavioral problems and impaired emotional expression. Some factors include feeling helpless and unable to stop the disappearance of activities and events that have traditionally been milestones in development.
“We’ve had to be creative and develop ways to acknowledge the achievements of our youth and young adults,” White said. “Although our efforts to compensate are appreciated, the accomplishments of our youth and young adults should have brought feeling of elation, not a deflated version of it. The lack of social/peer interaction in shared physical spaces makes things even worse.”
White explained to Southern Maryland News that frustration and anger may come from parents who have to work from home and teach their children at the same time, overwhelming them. In addition, sibling bullying may be more commonplace as well as risky behavior, particularly on social media.
Agent of Change is taking these into account, as well as additional mental health stressors that may occur within African-American youth. The visions of blatant brutality, social and economic injustices, educational disparities, along with the realities of protests to create change and progression are things White has focused on through her practice.
In 2009, White tailored Harambee Youth of Southern Maryland, a group dedicated to combining mental and behavioral health interventions with African-American history, past and present, dance, drumming, cultural events and mentorship. Leadership, community awareness and involvement, social action and peer relations are also involved.
Harambee, meaning “let’s all pull together” is designed to positively impact the growth and overall wellbeing of African-American youth, White said. While children may need more uplifting during a difficult time, adults, parents and couples who use Agent of Change are often just as impacted by some of the same symptoms of children and adolescents.
White said these symptoms are compounded by financial hardship, loss of employment, loss of businesses due to the lack of financial stability and no self-control. Families who are in conflict can frequently experience verbal, emotional and physical aggression, or abuse.
“Making matters worse, there is an increase in drug and alcohol use,” White said. “Not to mention the inability to meet basic needs. These complications create deficits in traditional family roles.”
White told Southern Maryland News the number of children and adults seeking therapy and community support has continued to grow amid the pandemic. She said Agent of Change is hiring experienced licensed certified social worker-clinical and licensed clinical professional counselors who are a good fit for the agency.
Agent of Change adheres to government mandates and recommendations to keep staff and clients safe. White said she owns the largest Black woman owned mental/behavioral health agency in the Southern Maryland region.