Mental Health & COVID-19

Chelsea Butay shares her experience as a behavioral health therapist working during the coronavirus outbreak

Taking care of your mental health is always important, but the COVID-19 outbreak may be making it more difficult for people to get the care and support they need. For people already experiencing behavioral health conditions, the shelter-in-place order might limit access to services they depend on. Some people may be experiencing mental health difficulties for the first time as their lives are impacted by the coronavirus.

Our mission at Neighborhood HealthSource is to make sure everyone can get the care they need, regardless of income and whether or not they have insurance. We’ve had to get creative in how we get care to our patients during this unprecedented time, and our behavioral health team is no exception. Our behavioral health therapists and Licensed Alcohol & Drug Counselor have begun treating patients remotely via phone or video chat, making sure care is available while people stay at home. NHS Behavioral Health Therapist Chelsea Butay shares her experience treating patients remotely and offers tips on how to care for your mental health while staying home:

Neighborhood HealthSource: How does your job as a behavioral health therapist look and feel different while treating patients remotely?

Chelsea Butay: Getting used to remote services has been interesting. It’s been surprising to see how quickly many people have adjusted to it, including me, and have had sessions continue as normal. It’s been amazing to see how it increases access to services for some people, not only because of social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines, but also because it eliminates transportation barriers and reduces the amount of time needed for appointments. That said, teletherapy is obviously also vulnerable to internet connection issues that can interrupt the flow of sessions at times, as well as being tricky to figure out in the beginning. Some clients choose phone sessions instead of video, and while those are definitely productive appointments, too, it can be challenging for them to feel connected to the provider.

NHS: What are some challenges you’ve encountered during this situation? How have you navigated these challenges?

CB: I think I’d break down the challenges into logistical (making sure people know the when, where, and how of continuing to access services) and emotional (trying to support people through this surreal experience while I’m experiencing it right along with them.) I think the answer to navigating the challenges is really the same for both, though, which has been to try to practice lots of graciousness to them, myself, and all my colleagues as we all figure out brand new processes for all this. I’m really grateful for the team of people who have been making sure this happens, so we can continue making sure people have the services they need.

NHS: How has this public health emergency changed how you think about your work?

CB: It’s brought an even greater attention to the importance of human connection (for all of us) as well as the importance of resources being available to people with all levels of need and resources. As a therapist, while I obviously have and use specific skills and training to support people, one of the most significant factors in the effectiveness of therapy is the relationships I build with patients. That’s proving to be even more true right now, as many people live alone or as the only adult in a home, and really need the support of connection to another adult just to hear their concerns and encourage them where they need it.

“[This situation has] brought an even greater attention to the importance of human connection, as well as the importance of resources being available to people with all levels of need and resources.”

Chelsea Butay, NHS Behavioral Health Therapist

NHS: How has this situation affected your interactions with patients? Are there new worries/concerns/questions that you’ve been hearing from patients?

CB: This situation has shifted the focus of so much of my time with clients to self-compassion. People have so many ideas about the “right way” to handle this: Exercise more, rest more, do more projects, cook more, eat less, video chat everyone you know, unplug from technology. And then there are all the people still working on the front lines and trying to stay safe. So I think the answer is really, “It depends.” I’ve noticed lots of folks have a tendency to underestimate how physically and mentally exhausting it is for all of us to be facing all this uncertainty, in whatever small or large ways it’s impacting us. How it’s best for each person to handle this depends on their situation, what they have energy for, what their body needs, and what feels safe to get them through this. I’ve also been hearing a lot of worries about physical isolation from loved ones and financial/economic concerns. I’ve made a more consistent effort to explore how folks are caring for themselves, maintaining some sort of connection to others, and checking on concerns like increases in suicidal thoughts or substance use.

NHS: Why do you think access to behavioral health support is especially important during this time?

CB: Of course behavioral health is important all the time, but the difference now is that this is a collective experience that’s impacting most or every area of life for all of us at the same time. While that can be comforting (it’s ok that we don’t have all the answers, because no one does) , it’s also scary. We don’t have a roadmap for this or the support of someone who’s been through the same thing before to give us advice. All of our routines are flipped on their heads, which throws all our internal systems off­ (emotional, digestive, sleep) and many of us can’t do the normal things we might do to relax, like go out with friends or go to the gym. So we have to pay more attention to caring for ourselves because we’re all a bit more vulnerable with less support.

NHS: Do you have any tips for how people can take care of their mental/emotional health during home isolation?

CB: My number one tip is just to be kind to yourself. Recognize that this is a new situation and that new situations always bring a learning curve. You’ll need different things at different times to get through this, and you’ll need different things than the other people in your life, and that’s all ok.

Aside from that, I’d encourage the standard: Make sure you’re eating, make sure you’re drinking water, make sure you’re getting sleep when it’s available. Some people feel better with a structured routine, some people feel better shifting things around day-to-day, so be willing to try different things to see what feels best for you. And reach out for connection regularly, whether it’s family, friends, a therapist, or a recovery or COVID support text or phone line. Find a person or two to check in with about how you’re doing, what’s working, and what’s not. 

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Neighborhood HealthSource provides a full range of primary medical and behavioral healthcare services at four clinics in Minneapolis and the north metro. We work hard to make sure everyone in our communities can access the care they need.

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