Coping with the ups and downs of everyday life can be challenging in the best of times. But add COVID-19 to the mix, and those challenges can increase greatly.
Jerrod Brown, a professor at Concordia University in St. Paul, is the program director for a master of arts degree in human services with an emphasis in forensic behavioral health.
He said that in September, Concordia started a new program for an online graduate certificate in trauma, resilience and self-care strategies.
The program is online, offers 15 credits and continues for eight weeks. “There will be a new cohort in January, and another presented later,” Brown explained. “We plan to have three cohorts a year, and with this model the same students will attend classes together.”
The classes are designed for members of the helping professions to take a look at the importance of self-care, as well as working with clients who are struggling with depression, social isolation, or other issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
COVID-19 amplifies trauma
“COVID-19 is amplifying trauma and stress and really taking a toll on the helping profession,” Brown noted. “The helping profession is a pretty big word. It could include those working with homeless outreach, domestic abuse, substance abuse, counselors and peace officers.”
Brown said individuals employed in these fields are already prone to burnout and fatigue, and throwing in COVID-19 just adds fuel to the fire. He said they are working with people who had previous conditions going on before COVID-19.
“For example, were their clients dealing with depression already? Their in-person support system may be gone. And who knows what will happen when COVID-19 is gone? The helping profession may be even more impacted,” Brown said. “Once COVID-19 dies down and the dust has settled, that’s when some of these issues will rise, and it will be very concerning to the helping profession.”
Being mindful of this, Brown said the online graduate program emphasizes professionals practice self-care. “If they are not in a good position, they will not be able to take care of the people they work with,” Brown continued. “A counselor needs to show strength, and they are so used to the face-to-face meetings, but telehealth can be as effective. There have been some benefits but some negatives, also.
“What did we learn from this experience? It may happen again in the future, and we need to teach ourselves and the people around us to be prepared,” Brown said. “If we can run an organization from a healthy mindset, it will trickle down to the people we serve.”
Brown added that working from the mindset of collaboration, being kind to the people around us, validating, being kind to ourselves and others around us will reap benefits.
Are you stressed?
“Health professionals, working with vicarious and secondary trauma, want to be aware of their energy level and sleep habits,” Brown said. “Even if they sleep at night, do they wake up exhausted? Are they putting on weight? Crying about things that didn’t trigger them before?”
Feeling more anxiety, minimalizing feelings and becoming addicted to the screen, stuffing emotions, showing up late for work, can all be signs of increased stress helping professionals face, according to Brown. He said that difficulties in getting tasks done, being forgetful, putting down wrong dates, making poor decisions and in the worst scenario, drinking and using drugs can all be factors of stress.
“It is okay for professionals to say they are not doing okay and get therapy or join a support group,” Brown said.
Exercise, eat well, be around positive people
Brown’s advice to helping professionals or anyone else challenged by the additional stress of dealing with the pandemic is to adopt a routine of exercise, good nutrition and being around positive people.
“Do not overdo caffeine or sugar; there is a big connection with digestive issues,” he noted. “We can strengthen our immune systems, our gut and can improve our emotional health.”
Get good sleep
Brown also emphasized that sleep is one of the number one things that can be affected by stress. “It’s hard to get a solid foundation if you don’t get enough sleep,” he said. He suggested that if a health professional is not sleeping well, he or she should talk to a health care provider and make sure there is nothing physically wrong. Then find out what is going on in their lives regarding emotional pain, directly or indirectly.
“Look at fluid intake, get up and go to bed consistently at the same time, look at sleep hygiene practices,” Brown advised. “Is there clutter in the bedroom, is it too hot or too cold, is the mattress comfortable, does a bed partner snore, is there a ton of activity outside, is there lots of technology inside the bedroom, are there dust mites or mold?”
Brown said that if one looks deep, there usually can be found a combination of stress from COVID-19, worry and anxiety that can cause sleep deprivation. “They may be working with families that are worried about paying rent or not having enough food. There may be issues of domestic violence or the loss of a job,” he noted, “and family members may be using alcohol to deal with these issues. There may be couples with very different views of COVID-19 and how to deal with it, and that is creating conflict. The list goes on and on.”
These situations can lead the helping professional to face burnout, lack of sleep and stress, according to Brown. “Stress is normal, but toxic stress is bad,” he said. “It rolls downhill and gets cumulative.”
The classes being offered through the Concordia graduate program are geared to law enforcement, social workers, licensed psychologists and other members of the helping profession. “The program shows how trauma affects the special needs population and how it impacts brain development.
“The classes focus on the client, but also what the professionals need to know about themselves,” Brown added. “If you work with people, you probably will work with trauma. And we have all experienced trauma on some level.” He said he thinks it will be a really good program.
“It’s brand new, and I have been working with some other folks on developing it,” Brown explained. “We recognized we need a trauma focus track as well as forensic. COVID-19 has brought it to the surface.”
Brown said he has read so much and done a great deal of research on COVID-19, and he still finds himself confused by some of the information, such as what is safe, and what is not. “It does get confusing and political,” he said. He claimed that friendships and relationships with family members, neighbors and co-workers are all being tested.
“We need to listen and try to understand and not jump to conclusions,” Brown said. “I try to be kind and not judge or preach, but we want everyone to be safe, also, and use common sense. It’s not going to get better any time soon.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series with professor Jerrod Brown on the psychological impacts and trauma associated with COVID-19 that is affecting members of the helping profession. Coming up are tips for those dealing with domestic violence and special needs.
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