The George Washington Carver Community Center hosted a virtual event on Thursday, May 29 to discuss trauma, grief, and resilience, particularly as those issues intersect with the Black American community and the COVID-19 pandemic. Carolyn McNary, Three Rivers city commissioner and president of the GWCCC board, as well as Pastor Terry Cropper and Elizabeth O’Dell, coordinated and facilitated portions of the discussion.
What is trauma?
Tasha Turner-Freeman, a licensed professional counselor, began with a description of the terms “trauma” and “resilience.”
She said, “Traumas can be described as anything that’s too much, too fast, anything that’s too little, for too long,” giving the examples of too much severe weather or too little food for too long that can result in lasting trauma. She noted trauma is based on individual perception, meaning one person could be impacted differently than someone who experienced the same thing, and that secondary trauma – hearing about or witnessing a traumatic experience – also affects people. She mentioned a fact that would be discussed by other professionals on the panel as well: physical health and mental health are all part of the same system, and both the brain and the body respond to stress.
“The other side of the coin that I think we always, always have to give space to is resilience,” she continued. Rather than “toxic positivity,” resilience is “the ability to withstand, adapt, and recover […] it’s about how we come through [the traumatic events], not ignore them, and then become better on the other side.
“[It’s about] giving honor to the things that hurt or may be painful, or may continue to be painful, but it’s also remembering what else is true. ‘What are my continued strengths, whether as an individual or as a community?’”
COVID-19 and mental health
Cropper posed a question to Andre Wayne, a limited license psychologist and therapist, about how communities can respond to mental health challenges in the age of COVID-19. Wayne said there has been a mental health crisis going on for a long time, predating the pandemic but worsened by it. “We’re all experiencing some elements of trauma,” Wayne said, “and this last year has really, really brought that to the forefront.”
Dawn Criswell, a clinical social worker and therapist who works primarily with seniors in their homes, said the isolation and loss from COVID-19 has led to higher levels of anxiety and depression in older generations. Because of limited access to technology, some seniors are unable to access mental health resources via telehealth, which has become more prevalent as a result of the pandemic.
“What COVID really taught us is that we can’t wait until there’s a crisis to care for the self,” Turner-Freeman added. “I think so much of what we thought we were doing as self-care was really just kind of escaping,” as places like movie theaters, salons, and spas were shut down. “When those things are stripped away, do you still know how to care for yourself?”
Wayne said, “One of the benefits of what we’re going through right now is that we have an opportunity to very intentionally decide how we’re going to take care of ourselves differently.”
Barriers to getting help
The panelists discussed a number of barriers that get in the way of people seeking out help. Wayne acknowledged the fear that can play into speaking up: “If I seek out help, what are people going to think of me? What does this mean about me? Does this mean that I’m weak, or not competent or capable?” He added there’s often an inability to put words to the feelings that relate to trauma, anxiety, and depression, which is something a counselor can help with.
Criswell said older people often “just don’t talk about [their] stuff, don’t share [their feelings],” which can be a barrier to getting help.
Turner-Freeman raised “a culture lens” and the topic of identity to the discussion of barriers. “Even if you have an awareness that something is going on with you mentally, it may not be culturally okay to talk about. I think about, for Black men in particular, it’s okay to say, ‘I’m angry,’ it’s okay to say, ‘My arm hurts.’ But, I can’t tell you that I’m sad, I can’t tell you that I’m nervous or I’m scared… It may not even necessarily be that [someone doesn’t] know what’s going on; it may just be that they don’t feel like they have a safe space or avenue to communicate that. So I think that it’s incredibly important in having this conversation to understand the multiple layers of identity that go into not only identifying what’s happening but also feeling safe enough to do something about it.”
Wayne said therapists are not always trained to work with people from a variety of backgrounds, which can leave the person seeking help feeling misunderstood. “That’s an aspect of our profession that we constantly have to work on.”
Mental health, faith, and spirituality
O’Dell, one of the conveners of the discussion, asked a question of Pastor Cropper, who leads Bethel Baptist Church in Three Rivers, and also works in the mental health field. She asked, “I know in the African-American community, we have a deep, abiding faith in God, and if I pray enough, if I go to church enough, I’ll be okay, regardless of the pain that I’m experiencing mentally. And so I want to ask you, what do you say to the people you serve about mental health?”
Cropper said, “One of the things that I tell and encourage our people is that prayer and God also can go along with medication or whatever therapy you may need.” Along with his spiritual leadership, he also encourages people to get the help they need from mental health professionals. Turner-Freeman added in the chat box, “You can have Jesus and a therapist. God is not intimidated by the gifts he’s given his people.”
Cropper said the mental health crisis extends to clergy and pastors as well, “and that goes to show us that we need more than prayer, we need more than God. We know He is our ultimate source and all of that, but we also need some other things to help to assist us until God brings that great deliverance.”
One participant commented that spirituality can have a positive impact on mental health, as a “holistic approach” to find the “deep center within the self” that people can draw on. It was noted that some have used the time of isolation with the COVID-19 pandemic to go deeper within themselves, and “find the strength to deal with things instead of letting them overwhelm them.”
What you can do
Panelists discussed a variety of ways they encourage people to care for themselves and each other to build resilience. They all emphasized the importance of reaching out for help. “Normalizing the conversation when someone says that they’re struggling or that they’re feeling down or depressed” and validating that feeling, and “acknowledging that we do all struggle” are key components of mental health, according to Wayne.
If finances are a barrier to getting help, Wayne said, “reach out and we’ll figure it out.” There are always resources available, he said. If Turner-Freeman isn’t able to help a patient, she said she will reach out to her network and find another professional who can. Criswell mentioned free grief and loss support groups that are available through the hospice network, and added that therapists will sometimes offer a sliding scale for services.
Focusing on strengths is an important part of resilience, the panelists said, as a part of getting through tough times. “Where does your strength come from?” is a question Criswell asks as she works with people. She encourages them to tend to their body, mind, and spirit every day by doing activities such as connecting with their family, going for a walk outside, listening to music, and writing down their intentions for self-care.
When people ask Turner-Freeman where to even start with self-care, she encourages them to get in touch with their five senses, since mental health is deeply connected to the body: “See something beautiful, smell something, touch something, taste something, hear something different, and notice what it’s like in your body when you do that […] Do something with your five senses that activates a different part of your brain, and notice what happens when you do that. When you see something beautiful, what happens? When you listen to something that gives you peace or some calm or joy, what happens? And sit with that, and know that you can hold both: you can honor and walk-through adversity while at the same time recognizing the things that are still beautiful and joyous, or just don’t suck as bad as other things […] It’s okay to do that, and it’s important to do that, so that even when something isn’t a crisis, you have those things to lean on, and it doesn’t have to be where the story ends.”
Community Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services of St. Joseph County
National Alliance on Mental Health
Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.