“They really cracked the shell”: Finding mental health support in the midst of a pandemic
An unabridged version of this story was published in the Chicago Tribune on March 3rd, 2022. To read the full story by Alison Bowen, click here.
As the pandemic wore on, Kayode Martin felt stuck.
He’d graduated virtually, a high school senior when COVID-19 arrived in Chicago. A year later, in 2021, he was working at a store but struggling to find a routine that felt on good footing.
When his grandfather told him about a construction training program at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, he applied. During the intake process, a social worker there also suggested counseling, and the 19-year-old was connected with therapy. A year later, he looks forward to the weekly Monday morning appointments.
“I actually never really thought about going to a therapist,” he said. “I kept a lot of my emotions bottled up inside.” Now, he said, “I feel more relaxed. I feel more in touch with myself.”
Martin is one of the Illinois residents who reached out for help during the pandemic with an immediate need — housing help, groceries — and were also connected with a therapist. During the pandemic, many Chicago organizations began rethinking how to provide mental health help as the virus swept into the city and many were left for the first time feeling in need amid the psychological rubble of upended lives.
The pandemic created a mental health crisis in the U.S. By fall 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released findings showing Americans were facing increased symptoms of anxiety and depression; nearly half reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition. Already destroying normalcy everywhere — schools, child care, travel, family reunions — COVID-19 added excruciating hardships, shuttering businesses and heightening unemployment. In December, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said young people were facing “devastating” mental health challenges; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked and offered tips on stress and coping regarding COVID-19.
People who are in crisis might know they need food, or housing — tangible needs — but not realize they are also struggling mentally. This posed a challenge for agencies that try to help them. When people are in crisis, how do you carve out space for them to evaluate and address their well being?
At the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which offers health services, housing and job training, they started what director of behavioral health Natali Rehman calls “brief therapy” — a four-session series with the first as assessment and the next three to stabilize someone. The network also offers group therapy on topics such as grief or stress management for those unable to immediately connect with a therapist. The wait list is now at four months; it was nine months in previous months of the pandemic, Rehman said.
“We figured if you’re having housing insecurity, I’m pretty sure there’s other things you need assistance with,” Rehman said. “You can imagine an individual who’s on the verge of being evicted or on the verge of not being able to put food on the table, what does that do to your social, emotional well-being?”
“We have to be creative and innovative,” Rehman added. “The need is just so high within the community that to just sit back and do nothing, it’s a huge disservice.”
During the pandemic, hearing about changing needs, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network created new programs —its Food and Wellness Center in Englewood offers essentials from food to face masks. All employees there are trained to look for signs of trauma; clinicians and interns are from diverse backgrounds and provide services in Spanish and Arabic. Signs of mental health challenges can include someone seeming down or hopeless, saying they’ve had trouble sleeping, that they’ve felt like a failure or have let themselves or their family down. All of these are things that could prompt someone to suggest meeting with a therapist. Many providers use a questionnaire that asks people to rank how often they may feel this way.
“We don’t want to put a Band-Aid by saying, ‘Here’s a box of food and go about your way,’ ” Rehman said.
Martin is part of the Green ReEntry program, which helps people learn skills such as construction. Through this, he attends group sessions that approach topics, including substance abuse or how to handle difficult situations, in addition to his weekly meetings with a therapist.
“It’s a blessing, it really is,” he said. “A lot of people don’t actually get therapy for free, and I get mine every Monday.”
Martin and his therapist discuss school and emotions. “I was never really used to talking about how I felt, things of that nature,” he said. “They really like cracked the shell.”
For Martin, several months of therapy helped him open up to others in his life, like his mother. He feels stable, not so stuck.
“I feel like I’m evolving now,” he said.