May is mental health awareness month and, during this COVID-19 pandemic, many are more aware of their own mental health than ever before.
Medical and financial uncertainty are fueling a level of anxiety some have never experienced, but a group of local therapists is helping ease that stress — free of charge.
"My anxiety level was through the roof," Caitrin McKee said. "I just felt like I needed to reach out and find some forms of support."
McKee said being out of work, worry about her aging parents in New York and just general concern for others was getting harder to handle.
"I was just really struggling with the news and seeing predictions of what was going to happen, how bad things could get," McKee said.
From her Arlington, Virginia, apartment, she went online looking for help and found the Counseling Center of Maryland. She spotted an ad on their web page for free sessions and logged on.
"I just thought that's absolutely the kind of thing that's needed right now," said McKee.
The therapists host free, hourlong Zoom sessions every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. Licensed counselor Marjorie Kreppel said they've done 29 virtual group sessions since the pandemic began, with 20 to 30 clients joining each time.
"We're all in this together, but yet so many people are feeling very much alone in it," Kreppel said.
She said others are struggling with spending too much time with their partner or children. Developing better ways to communicate has become critical.
"There's definitely a lot of conflict," said Kreppel. "There's nowhere to go ... so people are having to work things out directly."
She said many people didn't realize how much they relied on escaping to the office or other commitments, even social activities, as a way to avoid their own emotions. She said facing them is an opportunity for growth. She also advises clients to stop putting so much pressure on themselves.
"Just because you're not doing anything, it doesn't mean your goals are put on hold," Kreppel said. "It might be that we're going about accomplishing them differently."
Participants in the free sessions are allowed to join with or without video and don't have to give their real name. The therapists have seen medical professionals and first responders struggling with the silence when the adrenaline stops. They've heard from workers who have lost their job and employers who've had to let workers go.
"You just never know what's going to get brought into the room each time," Kreppel said.
Four therapists participate in each group session and often take the opportunity to share their experiences as well. Kreppel said it's a unique situation, because the therapists are going through many of the same things the clients are.
"It's actually pretty incredible," Kreppel said. "We're all really sharing all of our things with each other."
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found nearly half of adults felt their mental health had already been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. That was in early April.
"I know intellectually that I'm not alone, that other people are dealing with a lot of the same kinds of anxieties, but it's nice to to hear it," said McKee.
McKee usually joins the free groups about twice a week and participates in the conversation. She said when she offers something another participant finds valuable, it also helps her own outlook.
The group setting allows participants see what others are experiencing, which can also put their own problems in perspective. The fact that it's free means even those who are struggling financially can take part.
"I'm very grateful. I think that it's a wonderful thing that they're doing," said McKee.