As the new year begins, we often take time to reflect on the previous year, and 2020 was a year of tremendous turbulence. This past year ushered in many challenges and new circumstances that left people across the country feeling isolated, overwhelmed, and fatigued. According to the CDC, 40% of adults in the U.S. reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse in June of 2020.
Mental health experts across the country are on the frontlines of responding to and treating these symptoms of anxiety, depression, substance use, and trauma. We wanted to glean some expertise from Seattle therapists and Intentionalist business owners, so we spoke to Gordon Greaves, owner of Perseverance Therapy, Ashley McGirt, owner of McGirt Counseling Services LLC, and Jennifer Creson, owner of Protea Wellness who each shared with Intentionalist their observations and advice for how people can better support themselves and their loved ones going into the new year.
Reflecting on a Challenging Year: If You’re Struggling, You’re Not Alone
“A lot of people — most people — are having a hard time right now, in many different ways,” Jennifer Creson said.
Some common stressors that Creson mentioned include political and election fatigue as well as pandemic-related anxiety and job obstacles like layoffs, work-from-home isolation, and feelings of fear and stress for essential workers.
Ashley McGirt, a racial trauma specialist, stressed that on top of many of these challenges, Black individuals and other people of color are processing a complex array of emotions following the racial injustice, protests, and police murders of 2020.
“I am seeing patterns of joy and excitement, that topics of racial injustice are coming to the forefront, mixed with feelings of anguish and discontentment that it took a global pandemic to recognize some of the ills of America, and what Black people are experiencing,” McGirt said. “Systemic racism and police violence are now becoming everyday household terms but these are not foreign concepts to most Black people and others from BIPOC communities. The public recognizing of things that most Black people and other people of color were already aware of can be very triggering and lead to a host of overwhelming emotions.”
Reflecting on how the Greater Seattle community braved the year’s turmoil, Gordon Greaves said he noticed themes of perseverance and resilience.
“One of the most striking themes of 2020 was that as the world closed more and more we as a people kept finding new doors to open,” Greaves said. “When the first stay-at-home order was issued no one knew what to expect or what to do. As we lost our ability to be together, we responded by creating new points of connection. That’s what resilience looks like.”
But ultimately, he continued, many people are still struggling and coping with grief.
“With the pandemic, each of us lost something and/or someone. Grief is real for all of us and for each of us that grief looks different,” Greaves said. “With everything that was taken and everything that we gave to our friends, family, and community not all of us are in a place where we can recover yet. Saying you’re not ok, being not ok, is an acceptable place to be today. If you find yourself in that space today, know that you are not alone.”
How to Support Loved Ones in 2021: Advice from Mental Health Practitioners
So what should we do for the people in our lives who we know are struggling right now? How can we support our friends, family, and community? Greaves, McGirt, and Creson all gave excellent advice — but their general themes are about balancing space, grace, and connection.
Creson advised checking in with your friend or family member to see what their needs are.
“Some people are really needing connection- especially in person (distanced, masked, and outside) hangouts… Some people need more space right now … Also, some friends may not have enough mental energy to connect right now but still love you. Honoring a person’s need for space is just as important as honoring a person’s need for connection,” Creson said.
For those we’re connecting with, Greaves says we ought to pay attention to how much active quality time we’re spending with people in our households versus just passive togetherness. He also encourages people to get creative about spending time together via technology or outside — he says our brains crave novelty, so if you can try something new or visit a new park or beachfront, all the better!
“Take time to learn how you like to be in relationship with others and learn how others like to be in relationship with you,” Greaves said. “Find your point of connection. Be it with family, with a friend, with your faith community, or even with your pet(s). If there is one thing I have seen more this year then perhaps any other is that people are ready to listen. Talk therapy is a tremendously useful practice but, at its core, those 50 minutes are spent listening and that is something we can all offer to each other.”
Lastly, it’s important to recognize that many of our habits and preferences have changed in response to the global pandemic and be patient as people’s needs and capacities might fluctuate.
“Be kind, be patient, and extend grace,” McGirt said. “We all are experiencing a global pandemic and we all are reacting in a variety of ways. It is important to not put pressure on our friends or families during this season. Grace and kindness will take us far.”
How to Support Yourself in 2021: Self Care Looks Different For Everyone
While “self care” has evolved to be a commercialized buzzword of sorts, at its rhetorical core, the phrase refers simply to “caring for yourself.” McGirt has expanded her definition to include what she’s discerned as three critical components.
“It has to be all about you in a way that is not oppressive or harmful to anyone else. It has to bring you joy, and it has to nourish your mind, body, and spirit,” she says.
McGirt lists that writing, taking bubble baths, prayer, and having “a moment to do nothing more than exist and be without any pressure from the world” are just a few of her favorite ways to care for herself.
For Greaves, he loves meditation and exercise. He advises people not to put stress on the duration or intensity of these things, but simply to commit to trying for brief stints. Whether you find five minutes of time for some deep breathing or 15 minutes for a walk, psychological research (and Greave’s personal testimony) suggests these are game-changing solutions.
“Above all else, try to develop a routine that creates some space for yourself,” he said. “It may sound counterintuitive but the best way to take care of your kids, your partner, or your friends is to take care of yourself first. None of us are endless wells of love or hope so make sure you find something that puts some of each back into your well.”
Overall, Creson encourages people to recognize that a lot of their normal coping mechanisms have been rendered obsolete in these times. For many of us, we’re not able to access some of our typical reset-buttons — small vacations, meals eaten away from home, or even hugs from friends.
“Overall, trying to be gentle with yourself is so important,” Creson said. “ One thing to try is to get outside, even for 5 minutes, to smell the air, see how the world is changing, and see what wildlife is still stirring outside. It helps us keep connected to the larger world and the changes that happen with each new season when we are stuck in our homes all the time.”
Start Small: New Year’s Recommendations for Wellness
If it feels authentic to you, the new year might be an opportune time to engage in a practice, activity, or reflection that provides an opportunity for you to reset. While New Year’s resolutions can feel forced or corny, the sentiment can be incredibly useful, Greaves says.
“I would encourage everyone to take time to at least consider something that they would like to be different in 2021,” Greaves said. “Finding the time and space to take stock of your life and recognize what you enjoy and what you do not is a worthwhile exercise. Remember that every system that exists is resistant to change. Everything from the planets in our galaxy to our ecosystem right down to ourselves as a system, change is generally unwelcomed. This year see if you can create a new space for change in your life. Often we do not have a choice on whether change happens or not but what we do have control is how we think and feel about it.”
Greaves also encourages people to abandon their search for closure and consider finding ways to let go, saying, “Ultimately it is up to us to decide what we carry with us every day when we wake up … If our hands are full with what weighs us down how will we be able to reach out for what we want in life?”
If you’re looking for a more ritualistic way to enter the year, Creson has a few suggestions that will help you mark the change of years in a season where time can feel more slippery.
“Say goodbye with a bonfire or write a Dear John letter to the year,” she said, “Resolutions may or may not be your thing, but having intentions for what you would like to embody in the new year could be a nice way to mindfully mark the change of years.”
But remember, the new year isn’t intrinsically magical — nor is it an automatic reset. We all have to put in the work, McGirt says.
“2021 will not change us — we will change us,” she said. “We all have the capacity to create change no matter the size. I find it extremely important for every one of us in this new year to tap into our greatness and create change. We also must experience joy, deep internal joy. Just because the world is burning doesn’t mean we have to set ourselves on fire with it. We can be a water hose.”
Finding and Accessing Mental Health Services: Tips and Resources for You!
There’s no better time than right now to pursue the mental health support that you need. If you’re looking for a therapist, you can search right here on Intentionalist, but Greaves also recommends multiculturalcounselors.org to find someone who is a good fit for your cultural, linguistic, and religious preferences.
If the cost of therapy is an obstacle, Creson says to look for clinics with sliding scale offerings — often at community mental health clinics, private groups, and schools. She also recommends checking out Open Path Psychotherapy Collective.
McGirt has launched her own 501c3 organization in order to address therapy access obstacles for the Black community in Washington State. Accepted applicants can receive a total of six cost free sessions with a therapist of their choosing.
“Due to the rise in unemployment I have found that many individuals have had difficulty covering the cost of therapy sessions,” she said. “Thus, I founded the WA Therapy Fund Foundation. A 501c3 geared toward eliminating the cost of therapy for the Black community.”
Greaves says that while face-to-face therapy is preferable, it might be easier to find a therapist right now because they can video call from anywhere across Washington State.
Wondering what you need to know as you search for a therapist? Greaves has a few tips. He says you need to know what type of therapy you’re looking for (1:1, couples therapy, family therapy, etc.) and what type of licensure you’d like them to have. Also — you should ask a therapist about their educational background and to explain their theoretical orientation. Lastly, be sure to ask about payment and find a provider who can work with your insurance or has flexible payment options.
“Not all therapists are the same,” Greaves said. “Explore the different types of therapists available to you.”
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