How COVID-19 is impacting mental health

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it is likely that someone you know has been silently dealing with anxiety or has experienced a panic attack. However, do they feel comfortable enough to share this information with you? Do they feel that you are educated enough about mental health? If you didn’t answer “yes” to these questions, get the tools you need. Just like a life-or-death emergency that can be immediately saved through the touch of a life alert button, a mental ailment can be rescued through the listening ear and intellectual guidance of a psychology expert. Why wait until COVID-19 clears the air and you’re back into your regular, busy routine? Start your Master’s in Psychology this summer cohort (beginning on May 20th) to serve as a resource to your local community and the world at-large. You may be wondering if an entire master’s degree is essential for just a few people you may know that needs healing, but the data shows otherwise. According to Mental Health America, a U.S. community-based non-profit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness, there was “a 19 percent increase in screening for clinical anxiety in the first weeks of February, and a 12 percent increase in the first two weeks of March.” Similarly, an article published on Bloomberg.com reports that Talkspace, a chat and video therapy service, has seen a 65% increase in customers since mid-February. Wondering how you can help the world right now during such uncertain times? Change can be accomplished through the power of your mind. Start your application today to gain a new set of tools for yourself and help others heal from their suffering. Visit the Master's in Psychology program page to learn more about the curriculum, application requirements and more.

Alumna Helps Athletes Overcome Brokenness

When we watch our college athletes perform, there are several recognizable traits on display that they all have in common: drive, competitiveness, self-confidence, focus, preparedness, discipline, a positive commitment to the team and a maturing commitment to maintaining their top form. But for Divine Mercy University (DMU) alumna Samantha Kelley, it isn’t just the traits shown on the outside that affects athletes.  As a finance and political science double major at the University of Connecticut, Kelley thought that she would find herself either working within finance or pursuing law school after undergrad. But her own experience as a Division 1 soccer player, as well as those athletes she played with in college and with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), she noticed a pattern of hidden struggles that female athletes endure as they progress in sports. “I was a college athlete myself,” she said, “and then I worked with college athletes through FOCUS for a number of years. I was managing 35 missionaries at that time who all had a bunch of students under them. I kept coming across a lot of brokenness. I kept finding that our female athletes were really struggling with a lot of confusion and misinterpretation about identity, femininity and sexuality.” Kelley was a member of FOCUS when the organization entered a tuition reduction partnership with DMU. Having always had an interest in psychology, she saw the university as a great opportunity for her to build a greater understanding of the human person so she could better serve missionaries and their students. She enrolled in the university’s M.S. in Psychology program and, even as she transitioned from FOCUS to the Theology of the Body Institute during her studies, she kept finding the lessons she was learning online integrating with the work she was doing. “The M.S. in Psychology is very enriching,” she said. “It really put words to a lot of what I was experiencing in terms of the very holistic approach to the human person and the dignity of the human person. That’s the very foundation of what DMU teaches. It felt like I was encountering those teachings in my work with FOCUS and the Theology of the Body Institute. It really provided a greater sense of integration within both my personal worldview and my career. It also helps you recognize when individuals are struggling and how to properly refer them to the right professional. The awareness of what’s out there and what goes on in psychology is huge, and knowing the limitations of my own capacity to help and what to do when I’ve reached that limit is super helpful.” The program also allowed Kelley to conceive her future vocation. As she transitioned from FOCUS to Theology of the Body while continuing her education, she felt called to start a nonprofit that promoted true identity and femininity in female athletics through this holistic view of the person, the human body, human sexuality, and understanding the values of the body. This nonprofit’s mission would also address the issues in body image, identity and mental health that she saw women struggle with in athletics. It was also a unique mission in that no other nonprofit was speaking directly to female athletes. Through her studies, Kelley founded Fierce Athlete “It’s actually really interesting,” she said. “I did my capstone project surrounding female athletics and the issues that can appear. With the program’s capstone project, I was able to tailor it to my own interests and the career path I was finding myself journeying towards. So I developed a small group program study for female athletes. As I was actively pursuing this new nonprofit, I chose to actively pursue that through my education as well. Within my capstone, I was able to use positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy to help women transition their mindsets around whatever it was surrounding femininity or athletics in their own views. The program really helped form what I’m doing now, but it also taught me a lot about how to approach people, especially with some of the women I work with at Fierce Athlete. There’s a high percentage of these issues in female athletics, but they are also very well hidden, especially in high school and college level athletics, and our goal is to address and help heal from those issues.”  In 2019, Kelley called other top athletes to join the mission by starting a podcast featuring female athletes from across the nation, including runner Kerri Gallagher, former pro basketball player Jennifer Finnegan and Sr. M. Xavier, who was a star basketball at Ohio State University before joining the the Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St. George in Steubenville, Ohio. Today, Fierce Athlete continues to help rising female athletes across the country. Kelley also brings the message and the mission past down to her through her education from DMU by  speaking nationally on topics of sports, femininity, Theology of the Body, prayer, and any other topics that fit within the mission of Fierce Athlete.  “The integration that DMU has between science, psychology and religion is unique, but just fits perfectly with what I’m doing today,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea for anyone who works with people. Human behavior wounds are complex, and the more that we can prepare ourselves to be able to care for people who are wounded and help them heal, the better. With the integration of faith and virtue, it becomes this very holistic approach that shows that everything is connected. I don’t have to make the connections myself.”  To learn more about Samantha Kelley and the mission of Fierce Athlete, click here. If you’re looking for the best way to create change and help people, consider the M.S. in Psychology at Divine Mercy University.  

Counseling Facilitators Experience Life-Changing Moments

Graduate studies aren’t easy. At Divine Mercy University, we see our counseling students hard at work in the virtual classroom as well as on campus during residencies for the Master’s in Counseling program. While on campus for their residencies, students get help from onsite clinical facilitators to develop their counseling skills. Back in the virtual classroom, though, non-clinical facilitators are on hand to facilitate the School of Counseling (SOC) students through course PHT 523: Moral Character and Spiritual Flourishing, which addresses the students' interpersonal flourishing in terms of vocations, virtues, and spiritual resources as they progress to becoming licensed professional counselors. The program has had consecrated women, priests, and spiritual directors serve as non-clinical facilitators. “The people who become facilitators for this are people who have a heart for ministry, and course PHT 523 is for the students to learn about themselves and how they’re growing,” said Laura Mayers, Academic Affairs Assistant for the School of Counseling and a non-clinical facilitator stationed on campus. Unlike their regular courses or the residencies, where both the students and clinical facilitators are on campus, the students are divided into groups of six in a workshop-style structure. They meet  through video conferencing every other week during the eight-week course. The purpose of PHT 523 is for the students to focus on their own journeys of growth, both spiritually and personally. The course assignments are personally intense but also, according to Mayers, forever life-changing.  One of those life-changing moments comes in the first assignment: the Spiritual Life Map. This assignment requires students to illustrate their whole personal, professional, and spiritual development from birth to the present day, highlighting major moral and spiritual events, experiences, and milestones throughout the course of their lives that have enabled their development in virtue.  For facilitator Victoria O’Donnell, who is also the Program Assistant for the Spiritual Direction Certificate program at the university, both the course and the stories that arise from the spiritual life map assignment are sacred.  “I think of Moses and the burning bush,” said O’Donnell, “where God tells Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on sacred ground. That’s what this course feels like for me. There is a profound, sacred vulnerability in it that leaves me humbled and in awe, and it brings back an experiential awareness of our common humanity. Each of us has our cross, but then we come to the question: what do you do with it?  Will you let it isolate you, or will you allow it to bring you to a place where you can feel your own pain and, in doing so, are capable of feeling someone else’s pain?” As the students become more self aware of their own struggles and their own spiritual development, they gain a special insight that’s critical to their future careers as healers. According to O’Donnell, the program helps them bring their past into a cohesive whole. The course allows them to develop and work with the tools to heal themselves, and gives them a better understanding of how others can work with them, as well.  “When you’re working through and processing your own stuff,” said O’Donnell, “there’s an experiential empathy that’s simply invaluable and cannot be taught -- it has to be experienced. This empathy allows one to have a respect for the other in their own individuality. The students’ processing through their own issues produces an understanding and a valuable empathy for their future clients.”   “I think they develop a lot of self-knowledge, a lot of self-acceptance,” said Mayers. “They develop a greater understanding of how they can lead a group that’s cohesive and enlightening for all involved, but also well-contained. The t experience of a group that’s well-controlled will help them when they’re working as counselors themselves in the future.”    As she hears and learns from each of her group’s personal stories, Mayers believes the facilitators also gain tremendous insight, and come out of each session with tools that they can exercise in their own lives.    “We all make judgments about each other,” Mayers said. “Sometimes counseling students come in with the idea of knowing what types of people they are going to work with and what types of people they won’t work with. But then they sit down with someone they don’t believe they had anything in common with and, in a very short time, find themselves experiencing a love for that person in a very profound way. “Every time someone opens up their life to you, you’re standing on sacred ground,” Mayers continued, “and that person will be forever a part of your heart because they shared their story with you. I look back at some of the experiences I’ve had in the groups, and I have a special place in my heart for each one of those people. You’re forever changed because you got to know someone in a very profound way, and maybe you’re forever changed because you got to know yourself, as well.”     PHT 523: Moral Character and Spiritual Flourishing is course counseling students take within the first academic year of their enrollment. To view a sample video from course, click here. If you’re passionate about helping those who struggle with mental health issues or suffered serious trauma, consider building the skills to do so through the M.S. in Counseling at Divine Mercy University.

Former Chaplain Returns as Faculty, Sees Growth

In September of 2018, Fr. Steven Costello ended his term as Divine Mercy University’s chaplain in order to focus on completing his studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. His absence was noticeable but short-lived, as he returned to DMU the following summer. But, in addition to returning to his role as university chaplain, Fr. Steven has taken on a new role: serving as a member of the faculty.   “I had asked for some time off to finish my doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family,” he said. “Around January/February of 2019, as I was completing that, a position opened up here at the university. I interviewed in May and officially started as a professor in the Department of Integrative Studies in July.” As he nears the halfway point to his first year as a professor, we sat down with Fr. Steven to talk about his return and his new role at the university.   What influenced you to become involved at Divine Mercy University (DMU)? “Psychology has always been an area of interest for me, and I truly appreciate the mission of the university and how we see faith as something that’s more integral to being a human person, instead of just something you add on top of it. That initial point of the university was very attractive and something I had considered myself during my own studies. Now that I’m in it and more immersed in it as chaplain and professor, I’m beginning to see and feel how I can really contribute to that conversation. I love the general sense of how we want to see the human person while also bringing that message of mercy -- through counseling, psychology and therapy -- to those who are normally in pain or confusion and are seeking help.”    Is the experience at DMU different from other psychology/education institutions? “At DMU, I don’t see any division between departments or between the faculty and students that would hinder them working together. There really is this desire within the faculty for all departments to come together, have conversations and build off one another, instead of everyone just staying together within their own department. There’s a real openness to try and learn from one another that other schools don’t have.  We had professors from elsewhere join us for the School of Counseling residency this past fall. When it was all done, Dr. Harvey Payne (dean of the School of Counseling) sent out an email thanking everyone for being a part of the residency, praising how great it was to be able to work with such an excellent group, and many chimed in on the email thread.  Those outside professors -- whether it was their first residency with us, or their second or third -- they went home knowing that there is something special going on at DMU. They noticed that there isn’t the usual divide between professor and student. Obviously we’re teaching them, but the students sense that we’re all professionals in training and are treated as such. So we feel there is a connection; there’s an availability and an approachability among the students, staff and faculty. We’re trying to live out the integral model we have in our training. I think that comes through the teaching and just the environment in general.” Has there been any significant moment that has stood out in your collective time here at DMU? “Both during my initial time as chaplain before and my time now as a professor, I was really impacted by graduation, especially this last year. The fact that it was in the upper church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception didn’t just add to the ceremony. You could really see the sense of accomplishment. It was definitely a highlight that we had really grown from the lower church. And then just to see the joy in the people’s faces---and seeing the students I knew as chaplain. I had actually assisted with some of the residencies for the School of Counseling as chaplain, and I knew a lot of the students in that first cohort that graduated last year. To see the students graduating with their masters and doctorates was really special.” Are you excited about the future, both for the university and for yourself as a faculty member? “Absolutely! We’re in a new building now, and I’m really looking forward to help develop that culture here. Just among the faculty, we’re seeing how we’re really at a new stage; we’re beginning chapter 2, so to speak. I’m just looking forward to continue gaining more and more expertise even in my own field so I can be more heartful in how I communicate it with students.”   

Miscarriage Trauma Involves Mental Health Need

Step into an examination room at an OB-GYN, and you may find a young couple staring up at a monitor. Little by little, their pure love, joy and anticipation illuminates the room, burying any sense of worry or cautiousness they may have.  But as they both stare up at the monitor--anxious to see and hear the long-awaited music of the beating heart of their first child--they are met with silence. Their radiant eyes become like icicles melting in the sun as they realize that their child is gone forever.  Miscarriages are more common than one would think. Approximately one in four women will lose their baby to miscarriage. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it’s the most common cause of pregnancy loss, with 80 percent of all miscarriages happening within the first trimester.  Sadly, that one-in-four statistic drives a stigma of commonhood that overshadows the true devastation of miscarriage, allowing friends and family on the outside looking in to feel compelled to offer words of encouragement rather than words of compassion: It’s God’s will; There was probably something wrong; You’ll be pregnant again before you know it This stigma makes it incredibly difficult for parents, especially those who miscarry within the first trimester, as their grief may be less socially acceptable or acknowledged than the anguish of someone who miscarried beyond twelve weeks gestation, leaving the grieving mother feeling that her loss is not valid. “I think it tends to be more of an afterthought,” said Dr. Benjamin Keyes, professor and director of training and internship at Divine Mercy University. He is also the director of the Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies, which offers training towards certification as Mental Health First Responders in times of disaster and traumatic situations.  “I think parents losing a child is the most devastating of losses,” he said. “I don’t think it ever fully heals. For some parents--depending on how strong their mood towards parenting is--it may actually stop them from the process out of fear of experiencing it again. I don’t think people realize just how bonded parents become to the fetus, nor the emotional changes that happen, certainly within the mother. When there’s a miscarriage, we think ‘well, it almost was.’ We move on and that’s the end of it. But that’s not the case for the person who has gone through the hormonal changes, those shifts in the body. That’s not the case for the people who were in preparation to becoming parents only to find themselves not being parents.”  As miscarriage carries a physical toll on the mother, it also takes a toll mentally, and can be a trigger for mental health issues including depression, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety. The grief is comparable in nature, intensity, and duration to that in people who suffer other types of major loss, and a 2016 study showed that four in ten women who experience miscarriage experience symptoms of PTSD Julia Bueno,a psychotherapist in London, England, has experienced miscarriages herself and  specializes in working with women who have experienced pregnancy loss. She is also the author of The Brink of Being: Talking About Miscarriage, where she explains that, despite how common miscarriages are, most are never mentally or physically prepared for the firsthand experience. “Many women,” she writes, “don’t expect it to happen and are not prepared for what it may involve: neither the potential physical--and possible medical--endurance nor the roller coaster of competing and complex feelings that the grief for a lost pregnancy can involve. The sadness, guilt, self-blame, sense of failure and worthlessness, anger, and uncomfortable envy can surprise or even shock the bereaved, who bear all this with no sure sense of how or how long to grieve, nor confidence to talk about an experience that has been relentlessly silenced.”   In addition to the unexpected mental and physical toll, most mothers find themselves at a loss in finding the strength to overcome such a tragic and traumatic experience that’s seen more as an afterthought. But according to Divine Mercy University professor and senior scholar, Dr. Paul Vitz, the struggle is not due to a lack of strength. As part of the module for Dr. Keyes’ course, COUN 640: Crisis and Trauma: Prevention and Treatment, Dr. Paul Vitz explains why some people who have experienced traumatic obstacles may struggle to overcome them. “I think in many cases,” he said, “the person who has failed to overcome those obstacles is not without many strengths and could really overcome them. But they haven’t been given any guidance. They haven’t been given any help. They haven’t been shown any strategies that might work.” Fathers are also affected by the same grief and, for them, the grief is twofold. First, there is grief for the mother, but also feeling an overwhelming sense of needing to set all grief and emotions aside in order to be strong for her. But then there is the individual grief for the loss of their baby with whom they had already forged a bond. This twofold grief can develop into what psychologist Dan Singley sees as the most common reaction for dads who experience a miscarriage: a profound sense of guilt.   “The guilt is very often the result of the fact that he himself is struggling,” said Singley, who is also the media chair for Postpartum Support International. “He’s got a lot of anxiety and depression but doesn’t feel entitled to it — kind of like, ‘Hey, I’m not the one who lost the baby, so what right do I have to be taking up her emotional bandwidth with my issues?’”    As our knowledge of the mental health risks and consequences that arise with miscarriages and infant/pregnancy loss grows, so does the need for mental health professionals to intervene with those parents in their time of need. The students at Divine Mercy University are being trained to address these parents’ needs as they cope with their grief. And the faculty work on both training the students and developing coursework that helps them be prepared to reverse the stigma around some of the less visible sources of grief, like miscarriage. “We do a lot in terms of parents,” said Dr. Keyes. “That is certainly a focus of the Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person (CCMMP): parenting and thriving within families. I think it does a good job in addressing family issues. I also think the focus in our courses does the same as we discuss family processes and family struggles across the lifespan of a person.” The Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person is unifying framework that integrates philosophy and theology with the psychological sciences. As one of the nation’s leading graduate institutions, Divine Mercy University is training students to identify, address, refer and treat both individuals and families who are suffering from depression, PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, with the specific mission to help patients flourish through the lens of the CCMMP. One excerpt from the document shows this focus on the family: Interpersonal relationality is first developed in the family, which is the basic unit of society. Humans have both a natural need for family and natural inclinations to establish families, that is, inclinations toward the goods of marriage and the procreation and education of children. All families, regardless of structure, deserve support, including assistance for the difficulties they face (Chapter 2). “That’s one of the functions of the helping professions,” said Dr. Vitz, “to give opportunities for new growth--for new flourishing--as a way of overcoming things that, in the past, the person was really depressed by or felt controlled by and felt, if you will, victimized in a way that made them passive, sad, withdrawn and without hope. That’s one of the things our programs focus on: How to provide strategies and ways of overcoming the past so that you can move hopefully and positively into a more flourishing life.”  Access to psychological services through the IPS Center at Divine Mercy University are available on a sliding scale basis. Services are offered by supervised doctoral students and are available to both adults and children. For more information, call (703) 418-2111) or email ipscenter@divinemercy.edu.
About DMU
Divine Mercy University (DMU) is a Catholic graduate university of psychology and counseling programs. It was founded in 1999 as the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The university offers a Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology, Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling, Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology, and Certificate Programs.