Area counseling, social service organizations face pandemic’s impact on mental health

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By Stuart Foster, Contributing Writer

Cara Presley, Westborough Youth and Family Services Director. Photo/submitted
Cara Presley, Westborough Youth and Family Services Director. Photo/submitted

WESTBOROUGH – After more than a year of quarantines and social distancing, many people are excited to put the pandemic behind them and return to normal.

Yet, just as COVID-19 itself continues to linger through new variants, Westborough Youth and Family Services (WYFS) Director Cara Presley emphasizes that the impact of the pandemic on mental health and emotional wellness has not gone away.

“The pandemic is this whole new thing that hasn’t happened in 100 years,” Presley said in a recent interview with the Community Advocate. “Most of us haven’t experienced a long-term chronic stressor to the extent that the pandemic is, and our brains are on overload.”

Mental health symptoms can take on many forms, experts warn

WYFS aims “to provide counseling and social services to Westborough residents” with the goal of promoting “behavioral health and wellness for the entire community” according to its mission statement.

Addressing pandemic mental health concerns in particular, Presley explained that because we are not sure when the pandemic will be over, our brains cannot decide whether to stay in survival mode or return to functioning as they normally would. As a result, she said, many people are having negative mental health symptoms that are new for them. These are lasting for long periods of time, she said.

Presley said that while some people could develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of these stresses, most people whose mental health is affected will experience these impacts in more subtle ways.

Additionally, she said that for some people quarantine has served as a kind of relief from more everyday social and psychological stresses. A return to normal could be intimidating, she said.

“What I’m striving for is to help people pay attention to themselves and their loved ones and recognize the toll that all of this is taking,” Presley said.

WYFS Director notes CDC data on mental health during pandemic

Presley wants to emphasize that these feelings are normal. In a letter to the community in May, she referred to Center for Disease Control reports that the rate of negative behavioral health conditions among adults had increased since the start of the pandemic. Psychiatric hospital emergency room visits for children aged 12 to 17 had risen by more than 30 percent.

Presley also wants to emphasize that resources exist to help people feel better. She said that YFS offers free, anonymous, and online mental health screening for anyone over 18. She also said that WYFS offers free counseling and resource and referral services for Westborough residents of all ages. They additionally offer a one-time clinical consultation to help make a plan to address mental health concerns.

Presley further described the work of Reach Out Westborough, a collaboration she said WYFS is doing with Westborough Connects to provide short, simple and virtual training for community members at the highest risk for COVID-related mental stress.

“That includes young adults, it includes essential workers, unpaid caregivers of all kind, and
Black and Latinx folk,” Presley said. “If folks fall into one of those categories, we are providing virtual trainings that help people to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health distress.”

Presley said the trainings include concrete skills to help people manage stress and support others.

Community organizations work to promote mental health

WYFS is but one of many organizations in the area looking to address mental health issues at a community and individual level.

“The pandemic will likely cause a spike in youth mental health problems, with long-term
psychological fallout,” Shrewsbury Youth and Family Services (SYFS) wrote in a recent
Facebook post.

SYFS, which works as a “private, non-profit counseling and social services agency,” provides a variety of services and programs to individuals in and around Shrewsbury who are struggling with mental health issues.

Northborough has its own youth and family services program, which offers a variety of
counseling and crisis intervention services, among other services.

Northborough Family and Youth Services specifically released a video and informational
pamphlet earlier this year detailing possible coping mechanisms to handle stress brought on by the pandemic. That pamphlet also offered ways to give back to the community, crisis resources and notes on how to talk to children about the pandemic.

In Hudson, meanwhile, the Health Department created a new full-time Community Social
worker position earlier this year to provide guidance to any residents on a variety of issues, including social and emotional concerns.

Various other area health departments, mental health professionals and non-profits continue similar work throughout the region.

‘We have an opportunity now’

In general, Cara Presley at WYFS suggested people practice activities and behaviors that help adapt to current stressors. Some of these activities could include meditation, exercise or getting fresh air, she said.

Presley encouraged people to talk about these issues with those they are close to and to listen to other people’s struggles without judgment.

“We have an opportunity now because this is something that is so universal, to really start to chip away at the stigma by talking about it,” Presley said about conversations relating to mental health.

While COVID-19 has not ended, Presley said that many people are being expected to act like society has returned to normal.

She appealed specifically to employers to be attentive to how their staff is doing and to
proactively offer support and resources for them.