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From Turbulent Seas to Tranquil Waters

Even now, it is clear that the only truth we know for sure is that we nothing at all.  

Amid the sickness, the staggering number of deaths, and the near-total shutdown that brought the entire world to its knees, it is hard to imagine that there is anyone out there who hasn’t been having a difficult time wading through the uncharted waters of coronavirus.  But for those who have been spending their days throwing out life preservers to struggling individuals while attempting to balance their personal lives, making it through the pandemic involves even greater responsibilities.

Covid-19’s mental health component is still unfolding, and unlike the physical side of the pandemic, it brings with it a curve that has yet to be flattened as entirely new groups of people grapple to find coping skills for their current realities.  There are survivors floundering after the unexpected loss of a loved one and those whose businesses have collapsed.  There are parents thrust into the role of educators and classroom teachers called upon to become experts in distance learning practically overnight.  There are children completely isolated from their friends and newlyweds dealing with shana rishona under unusually challenging circumstances.  The list goes on and on. 

Tzivy Reiter, director of children’s services at OHEL, who also oversees the agency’s trauma services, knows this all too well. “We had to pivot our services quickly and transition over to mental health, setting up secure platforms so our staff could work remotely, which is not always easy,” she says.


Shifting Gears

As the crisis exploded practically overnight, OHEL had to develop new protocols immediately to continue serving clients from afar, without diluting the quality of its care. Issues both large and small required immediate attention and while shifting play therapy to a distanced model was one thing, dealing with suicidality under lockdown conditions was another matter entirely. Having been with OHEL for 25 years, during which time she oversaw the response to both 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, Tzivy understood that while existing clients needed to be accommodated under the new normal, the pandemic brought with it many others who were drowning in turbulent waters.

“People may know and understand mental health, but disaster mental health is different, and you need people who are trained in this type of work,” explains Tzivy, who is responsible for the agency’s COVID trauma response.  

In an unusual set of circumstances, the coronavirus outbreak had mental health practitioners finding themselves in the same boat as those they were helping. Tzivy herself was sick during the early part of the outbreak, and as the mother of four girls, she has been juggling her responsibilities at work with the demands of round-the-clock parenting and homeschooling.

“It is very hard on them, and I think the demands of my job have tripled since this happened,” admits Tzivy. “I get the challenges people are facing because I am living all of them. When I hear about the different ways people are affected, I think I fall into almost every single category.”

Harnessing the Zoom Boom

Instead of meeting needs as they arose, Tzivy and her team anticipated potential issues and leveraged teleconferencing to address them en masse in a program titled Thera-Zoom.

“Everyone was in crisis and we tried to find ways to help,” says Tzivy.  “We hosted sessions that brought people together, sharing common experiences to support each other while also providing some psycho-education. This was about normalizing the situation and helping people understand. In the words of the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, ‘an abnormal response to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.’”

The sessions offered full confidentiality and gave participants nationwide the ability to tap into free support from well- known mental health professionals from the comfort of their own homes.  To date, Thera-Zooms have offered advice and skills to teachers and single parents, and a special four-week teleconference was designed specifically for Covid-19 widows. Disrupted celebrations, such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and other milestone events were addressed in another Thera-Zoom, while a special session was created to provide support for those struggling with infertility, whose emotionally exhausting treatments have been interrupted by the outbreak.

“We also did a Thera-Zoom for newlyweds, some of whom are having a hard time as well,” says Tzivy.  “A lot of them are very young and may not know their spouses so well, while others might be facing disappointment that the big party they had always dreamed of never happened.”

125 postpartum women from all across the globe took part in a Thera-Zoom session designed especially for them, receiving invaluable support during what can be a particularly trying time. 

“Many mothers who gave birth during COVID feel vulnerable and isolated,” observes Tzivy. “No one attended their baby’s bris and some of them gave birth without having their husbands present.  Many are feeling overwhelmed and afraid they might somehow transmit the virus to their baby. A highlight for me was when the host unmuted participants at different points for comments and you could hear all those little newborns crying in the background.  It was very powerful, bringing all these moms together at such a vulnerable and anxious time to support them.”   

Karyn Friedman, director of psychology services at Yeshiva Har Torah in Little Neck, said that she reached out to OHEL after a parent survey revealed that many were worried about juggling the many responsibilities that had suddenly fallen into their laps.  She reached out to OHEL’s director of trauma and crisis response, Dr. Norman Blumenthal, who arranged a teleconference to discuss their concerns regarding balancing work and school, developing children’s skills, dealing with missed milestones and the long-term impact of coronavirus.

“He addressed our issues masterfully,” says Karyn, who notes that several hundred parents tuned in for the May 19 presentation.  “He brought so much to the table – knowledge, a sense of humor and empathy. It was wonderful.”

The session with Har Torah parents also included an hour-long question and answer session.  Karyn received numerous emails from parents expressing their heartfelt appreciation for the teleconference which they described as “impactful.”

“It made them appreciate that there are many other people who are experiencing similar stress and that the most important thing that they can do is to maintain a sense of calm in their homes,” says Karyn.  “We are in a crisis situation and we have to get through it day by day.”

Choose Happy!

Parents weren’t the only ones who needed to build resilience to get through the extenuating circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak.  Working with party motivator and camp director Sara Younger and her existing program to spread joy among kids, OHEL launched The Smile Club! to meet the social-emotional needs of six to 12 year old girls in a fun way, using weekly interactive 45-minute Thera-Zoom sessions to equip participants with valuable coping skills.  A junior program tailored to preschoolers uses physical activity, expressive art, mindfulness and social connection to help ease even tiny tots through the current situation, with a separate program being dedicated to middle schoolers.  The OHEL website also offers multiple printable pages, which look deceptively like coloring sheets, but in reality, are far more than just simple art projects.

“They are five different modules of strengthening and coping skills that have been modified from an adult program,” explains Tzivy.  “The entire program, the printables and the Zoom sessions, are really resilience building in disguise.  There is a lot of entertainment here for children and raffle prizes as well, but this is all about building skills.”

The Smile Club! also has a four-part colorable coronavirus time capsule for children, allowing them to work through their feelings while capturing the moment in time for future reference.  Week by week the time capsules highlight different aspects of the outbreak while empowering children to take charge of their lives by addressing activities they enjoy, staying connected to their friends, and understanding how they can use relaxation, physical activity, and breathing to improve their spirits when the need arises.

Younger has found that children have been responding well to The Smile Club, especially the physical activity of the Thera-Zoom sessions, giving them a much-needed outlet to expend their energy after a day of teleconferenced classes.

“Children are naturally more resilient than adults and by giving them tools and messaging they are able to put their difficulties into words and talk about adjustments and possible solutions,” says Sara.  “They really are more adaptable and flexible than we are , and I encourage them to share what they are learning with their families.  The outbreak hit my daughter hard and she has been telling me that her favorite part of the day is when we talk about The Smile Club! at dinnertime.”

Moving On

While the devastation of the coronavirus outbreak may be similar to catastrophic events such as Hurricane Sandy, there are other ways in which it is unique.  A massive weather event wreaks destruction and devastation and moves on, but the pandemic and lockdown have been monopolizing lives for weeks.

“Things are typically consistent after a disaster – you see an impact, a honeymoon period, disillusionment, and then rebuilding,” remarks Tzivy.  “But here things are different.  In the beginning there was adrenaline, survival mode, and unity, but now what we are seeing is disillusionment and anger.”

Tzivy recalls one woman she had counseled for approximately five years after losing her husband on 9/11.  The two fell out of touch, something Tzivy took as a good sign, hoping that it meant that she was healing and getting on with her life.  After the coronavirus outbreak hit, Tzivy checked her emails one day and found one from the woman. It contained just a single word:  HELP.

“It turned out that she had lost a friend to COVID and was suffering,” recalls Tzivy.  “When a person has experienced a past trauma, a new occurrence of trauma can trigger them and reopen old wounds.  The effects of multiple traumas are exponential and I was glad that OHEL and I were in a position to support her again.”

There are people who are lacking the basics while others have no access to technology and find themselves extremely isolated, a situation that can often lead to depression.  Tzivy has been reminding her mental health practitioners that, for now, they need to function as case managers, helping their clients through the full spectrum of issues at hand.

“No one is going to be talking about their feelings if they don’t have bread on the table,” says Tzivy.  “Part of mental health care is getting connected and finding those resources so our clients can get the things they need.”

Even as the number of coronavirus deaths and new hospitalizations continue to decline, pandemic-related issues continue to dominate our lives. Like a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole, communal needs keep popping up, stressing the fabric of our lives in ways that most of us have never experienced before.  OHEL and the many other agencies and health centers that offer mental health are continuing to reinvent themselves day by day, answering calls and launching programs and initiatives to help the Jewish community at large navigate their way through oceans of uncertainty.  

With schools up in the air, concerns about a second wave of coronavirus still swirling, and regulations and restrictions changing day by day, we still have no idea how this chapter of our lives will end.  If we have learned nothing from the coronavirus, let us remember to appreciate each day as it comes, to be grateful for our communal institutions that offer critical services, and to have faith that while answers may be elusive, as always, Hakadosh Baruch Hu is running the show.

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and private clients.  She can be contacted at sandyeller1@gmail.com.

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