You’ve seen it in person and online: People in town are stressed by the coronavirus crisis, and with good reason. And there’s plenty more we’re not seeing despite the community’s best efforts to carry on and try to stay optimistic in the face of the pandemic. While Wellesley has put much effort into safeguarding the physical health of residents and employees, it is doing likewise on the mental health front.
We reached out to Mark Kline, Psy.D., Executive Director of The Human Relations Service (HRS) in Wellesley, to get his take on current concerns and priorities. HRS is a private, non-profit mental health agency serving families and children in Wellesley, Weston, and Wayland.
The organization this week received a grant from the Wellesley COVID-19 Relief Fund to provide free, online community support forums, facilitated by HRS clinicians. The forums include: Parenting Young Children in a Time of Pandemic; Parenting High School Juniors and Seniors Who are Worried about the Future; Grandparenting from Afar; Connecting Senior Citizens During Social Distancing; Bereavement in the Time of Covid-19; Supporting Covid-19 Caregivers; and Supporting Covid-19 Survivors. Resource materials on these topics will be developed by HRS staff and posted at www.hrshelps.org Some groups will launch as soon as May 13, others will begin as soon as possible
What are your biggest mental health concerns regarding the COVID-19 crisis?
Obviously, protecting the health and safety of every resident is the chief concern we face with COVID-19. The Human Relations Service, Inc (HRS) is the Town of Wellesley’s non-profit community mental health agency, and to insure the safety of our clients and staff, we transitioned to an entirely TeleHealth model as of mid-March. This means all services at HRS take place via teleconference platform. We will continue to do this until we are confident that in-person meetings, which we strongly prefer, will not in any way contribute to the transmission of COVID-19. As you might expect, residents are experiencing anxiety and concern about their well-being, and the health and safety of vulnerable people in the community. Social distancing and the closure of local public schools to in-person learning also create challenges of isolation, economic concerns, and more than a few cases of cabin fever. Families get to spend more time together as parents tele-commute, which has been a boon to some, but which also creates tremendous challenges for parents who are juggling work and childcare around the clock. School children miss their peers and the social connection that school provides. School staff are working hard to meet the challenge of educating and engaging children of all ages while many are looking after their own families. So it’s a very complicated multi-faceted situation for many in town.
Do you have a sense of the impact COVID-19 is having so far on mental health in Wellesley, based on your interactions with the community or observations?
At HRS, we are very impressed with how residents are rising to meet these challenges. In most cases, while stress and anxiety have increased, families make accommodations and find ways of living in a less than optimal situation. The longer this goes on, the more we are all stretched, and we look forward to a time when life can go back to normal. Stress, anxiety, loneliness, frustration, and fatigue are, in our view, normal responses to an abnormal situation, and we are continually impressed with the resilience and resourcefulness of Wellesley residents.
What does HRS (or other Wellesley groups/departments) have in store to help address people’s mental well being? What about on students?
We continue to provide counseling and psychotherapy to all residents who turn to us, regardless of ability to pay. Any resident of Wellesley who calls us will hear back within 24 hours from a member of our dedicated and professional Intake and Referral Team, who will hear them out and determine what course of action will connect them with the help they need. This hasn’t changed due to COVID-19. We work in close coordination with the Health Department in Town, which also provides funding for HRS Outreach Workers to assist students in both the Middle School and High School who have mental health concerns.
We also provide an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides up to 10 sessions of counseling to all town employees. This includes all school staff and anyone who works for the town. We believe this is an excellent investment in the well-being of people who provide vital services to town residents. In addition, HRS provides consultation services to school staff at all levels, by direct arrangement with the Wellesley Public Schools. Our goal is to support the skilled and talented people who work in schools, and who faces tremendous stress, especially in this period of virtual school.
What recommendations do you have for the people of Wellesley to support each other during this time?
Our main recommendation to residents during the COVID-19 pandemic is to prioritize health and connection. Exercise, diet, and fresh air are more important than ever, as ways of managing confinement, isolation, and mood. While we are all bombarded with information and advice, what is most basic to most of us—sustaining and renewing the important connections in our lives—is really the best tonic for many of the challenges we now face. This means reaching out to relatives and friends near and far, some of whom may be vulnerable and self-isolated. It probably means using teleconferencing portals as well as the old-fashioned phone call. We’ve really been impressed by how adept many elders have become with this in a short time. Coping efforts may also inspire some new family traditions for playing, eating, and talking together when other outlets are unavailable. HRS has prepared a handout with tips and links to many resources. If any resident needs more, they can contact us directly at 781-235-4950