“The thing that has struck me the most with my work… is that it has become a lot richer.”

When the stay-at-home order was issued for California in mid-March 2020, The Maple Counseling Center in Los Angeles, an organization that provides low-cost mental health services, shut down for a week. They needed the time to move their services online so they could keep supporting their clients.

But as they reopened, they felt a need to take things one step further. 

The Maple Counseling Center has always sought to remove the cost barriers to accessing mental healthcare for their clients and offering a sliding scale of fees based on the ability to pay. (Their average fee is only about $25 a session.)

But in the middle of the pandemic, it seemed important to offer something free so that there were no barriers at all.

“We wanted to give back, to give something to the community, and we did not want cost to be a factor,” says Marcy Kaplan, CEO of the Maple Counseling Center and licensed clinical social worker. “So we created some [free] emergency support groups for people struggling with the ramifications of the pandemic.”

One group is open to any adult that just needs a safe place to talk about how they’re coping with our new, post-COVID-19 world. The other group is for parents.

“From the very beginning, we didn’t presume to know exactly what the issues were going to be that people were going to be dealing with as a result of both the pandemic and the shut down,” explains Marianne Callahan, clinical and program director at the center.

That’s why, she says, they created a general online support group. But it quickly became clear that there was one group that was experiencing some very unique pressures during this time.

“I think there is a big difference between a parent who is suddenly at home with a house full of kids and juggling 50 million things and concerned about the impact on their children versus a single person who might be really, really lonely and isolated in their apartment,” Callahan says. “So we really wanted to give a space for the frazzled parents.”

“With the parents, one of the biggest things we’ve been noticing is the theme of loss,” says Casey Taslitz, one of the group facilitators. “There’s been a lot of loss, whether it is graduations or school or summer camp or not being able to see their families. So we’ve been helping parents help their kids put words to some of that anger or boredom or anxiety that they’re feeling.”

With the main support group, meanwhile, the issues raised in the group have changed as the pandemic continues to rage on — as society starts to open up and new challenges and anxieties arise. 

But so far, both groups have found success and have remained popular as the months went on.

“People are so grateful for just having a safe space,” says Jake Monkarsh, another group facilitator. “The group is becoming much more connected as we’re getting to know each other more and our clients are opening up more about the things that are troubling them.”

“I think the thing that has struck me the most with my work with my clients is that it has become a lot richer,” he continues. “We’ve all been forced to slow down and sit with ourselves in different ways.”

“A lot of the coping mechanisms we’ve used before to distract ourselves or avoid certain feelings, well, it’s a lot harder to use those,” Monkarsh adds.

“There’s been no other time like this in modern history,” says Kaplan. “Everything about what is going on right now and will go on in the coming months is new. To be dealing with this issue that affects everyone sets so many new feelings in motion.”

That’s why making time for your mental health is especially important right now. 

Since March 2020, our lives have been dramatically changed by the COVID-19 pandemic

Millions of Americans have developed COVID-19 and over 100,000 people have died due to the disease — many in hospital wings away from their grieving loved ones.

For the healthcare workers caring for people with the virus, the work has been relentless and devastating.

By the end of March 2020, 308 million Americans in 42 states, cities, and counties, were at home due to stay-at-home orders.

Economic hardship hit millions more as layoffs and furloughs left people without their employer-given healthcare in the midst of a global health crisis. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that by the end of the first month of these orders, nearly half of the adults surveyed felt that stress related to the coronavirus had a negative impact on their mental health

“This is an unprecedented time for our country,” says Rachel Needle, a licensed psychologist with the Whole Health Psychological Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“Our country was already in the midst of a mental health crisis where the stigma and lack of access to quality and affordable mental health services was a huge concern,” she says. “With the pandemic came an increase of mental health problems and exacerbation of current ones including depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance use disorder.”

“I knew people were struggling with isolation, losing their jobs, fear of getting sick, and the uncertainty of what the future would bring. Some people were experiencing uncontrollable stress which can be traumatic, debilitating anxiety, and thoughts of hurting themselves,” Needle says. “People needed help and I wanted to make sure they received it.”

So she too opened up her group psychotherapy practice to anyone who needed it — no one would be turned away, even if they couldn’t pay. 

“I pay my therapists the same as if the client was paying for services,” she says. “Often times, the therapists don’t even know the person is not paying for the sessions.”

Thrive Wellness Reno is another practice that decided to step up and help during this unprecedented time. 

“Thrive specializes in providing treatment for perinatal mental health issues, so we feel especially connected to the specific needs of parents-to-be and new parents,” says Kait Geiger, founder and CEO of Thrive Wellness Reno.

“The collective trauma of the pandemic can reinforce baby blues and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Parents with newborns are struggling with isolated birth and postpartum experiences, at a time when they should be surrounded by supportive family and friends,” Geiger says.

That’s why they’re offering a perinatal mental health support group for parents-to-be and new parents to work through their baby blues and to grieve a birth experience that they would have preferred.

The pandemic has been especially difficult for healthcare workers and essential workers.

Thrive isn’t just offering a support group for new parents. They’re offering help to frontline workers, too. 

“The collective trauma that we are all experiencing as a result of the pandemic is heightened for healthcare workers and first responders who are on the front lines of the pandemic,” Geiger says. “We wanted to provide a free, virtual resource to support our frontline workers and offer them a space to debrief among their peers who were facing similar daily traumas.”

This is also why Anna Nicholaides, clinical psychologist and owner of Philadephia Couples Therapy, is offering a month of free individual or couples therapy to healthcare workers. 

“I would never be able to be a doctor,” Nicholaides says, “so I feel so deeply grateful for people who are putting their lives on the line for this unknown and scary disease. This was a way for me to really give back.”

“A lot of physicians are able to do what they do because they’re master compartmentalizers,” she continues. “But it’s kind of a game of whack-a-mole. If you spend enough time warding off your more difficult feelings, they will show up in ways that are uncomfortable and distressing.” 

An enormous burden has been placed on essential workers, many of who come from communities of color.

LeNaya Smith Crawford, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of the Kaleidoscope Family Therapy group practice in Atlanta, Georgia, wanted to give back to her community.

“I saw how much my clients’ stress levels and anxiety had increased in the wake of COVID-19 and how quickly life as we knew it shifted,” she says. “The uncertainty was in many cases unbearable — I myself felt this increased sense of anxiety.”

“As a Black-owned group practice, making therapy more accessible has always been a part of our values,” she continues. “On top of the mass layoffs and many people now finding themselves unemployed or not being able to work due to children being at home, I was moved to do something more for my community.” 

She decided to offer 3 months of free counseling to essential workers and communities of color adversely affected by the pandemic living in Georgia. 

“While most of the world had been put on pause, grocery clerks, associates, and many other roles deemed essential were business as usual,” Crawford says.

“Here we are feeling a collective sense of anxiety, and essential workers, who happened to be Black and Brown people, were required to be exposed to something the rest of the world was shielded from. This contributes to the higher number in cases we have seen in Black and Brown communities and this further motivated me to do more,” she says.

“Access to quality counseling services is often a barrier for those that need it most,” Crawford adds. That’s why she has also expanded her mission in solidarity with Black Lives Matter to offer 100 Black families in Georgia 4 to 6 free counseling sessions during this critical time of intense racial trauma. 

The pandemic is far from over, but hopefully, free mental health resources like these will provide some aid to those that need it.

“There is no right way to get through this time,” says Monkarsh. “I think we’re all kind of judging ourselves and asking how we get through this.”

“Support groups or individual therapy are there to help support because no matter what you’re dealing with, having a space to explore those feelings is really important,” he says. 

Simone M. Scully is a writer who loves writing about all things health and science. Find Simone on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.