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.

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.

Postgrad, IPS Center Excited to Serve Loudoun

Over the summer of 2019, Divine Mercy University (DMU) made its highly anticipated move from Crystal City, just outside of Washington D.C., to its new campus in Sterling, Virginia. In addition to the big move, DMU also brought in some new faces, including Psy.D. graduate Dr. Kristi Stefani. Originally from Montana, Dr. Stefani joined the IPS Center for Psychological Services staff in August as a postdoctoral fellow and resident for the new training year. We caught up with Dr. Stefani to learn more about her experience with DMU, and what we can look forward to for the IPS Center. How did you learn about Divine Mercy University/IPS? Someone from my parish back in Montana recommended and researched the program. So I got connected and spent six years as a doctoral student in the program. As I was discerning future career paths, I knew I wanted a postdoc experience in an academic setting. I wanted one where I was deeply passionate about the mission and benefited from my own formation, but I also wanted to be a part of forming new clinicians and being involved in their training experience.  What has your experience with Divine Mercy University been like so far? I would say that it’s been largely a growing process, both as a student and now as a staff member. We recognize there is an evolution; we’re growing as an institution, and that’s really coincided with both our relocation and my coming on as a staff person. There’s a lot of dialogue about how we can do this successfully. What I’ve appreciated is that the response of the faculty, staff and students here is very generous and they’ve taken a collaborative approach to working through challenges as they arise. For me, no institution is perfect. But I decided to stay with DMU for a postdoc because there is a sense of purpose that goes beyond my occupation or how I make a living. There’s something greater here. And that’s what I enjoy most, this sense of purpose shared amongst the people who work here and come here as students. As a former student, I can share with the students currently in the programs that there’s a lot of emphasis on being formed both personally and professionally; there’s a lot of emphasis on who you are as a person for your professional role to matter. The investment of the faculty and school goes beyond academics to your personal formation, as well. What moment from your time with DMU stands out the most to you? Just pointing at a single moment is hard, because there are so many to choose from! When I was doing my internship--and even at other sites where I’ve worked--I trained alongside people who were in different programs and had a different experience. While working alongside these people, I recognized the perspective I was being offered at Divine Mercy University was very unique, and it comes from incorporating multiple disciplines. It’s not one-way psychology being taught, but a greater vision of the person. I’m very reflective and existential myself, and having those aspects attended to and having people who were actively trying to consider this robust understanding of the human experience--that it wasn’t just limited to psychological research--really impacted me on a personal level. I was learning how to understand myself and the people I work with. I experienced that as a student, too, with faculty who were really invested in me as a person, and wanted to help me grow both personally and professionally. Not all programs are structured in that way.    From your observation, how has the IPS Center impacted the communities in the D.C. area, and now in Loudoun County? The IPS Center is unique in that it meets needs that a lot of other clinics can’t. One is financial access for people. I know that fees present a real challenge for many people and can be a real barrier to receiving therapy.  Another significant component is a willingness to honor and respect a client’s faith, and a willingness to discuss and explore that faith in therapy. We’re very open to everyone who comes in. We don’t place an expectation that faith must be discussed. We have an openness to all aspects of what is important to the client. That openness is part of our professional ethics: that we’re attentive to all facets of somebody’s experience, and we know that in this area in particular, there are a number of different faith communities from various backgrounds for whom having that openness is very helpful. Our mission as a program and a clinic states explicitly that faith and spirituality are a component, and we know that is attractive to people. Research shows this is important to people, but it’s not always highlighted as something that would be attended to in one’s therapeutic work. There’s also been this stigma or even a divide over the questions of faith’s compatibility with psychology, which can lead people to avoid reaching out to mental health services. Instead, they may be more inclined to reach out to their pastor or their church community. But often, the people they reach out to are not prepared or equipped to meet their needs. With that in mind, the IPS Center can provide a great value and serve people in need. Often, we find that clients are looking for something that is Christian-based; they’re looking for someone with a Catholic understanding of the human person; they’re looking for someone that’s respectful of the holistic nature of who we are.  In my clinical work, people often share that they’ve had past experiences where they didn’t feel free to disclose the spiritual part of themselves. And that reaction to stigma hindered the growth that they could have accomplished.             How do you see the clinic impacting the local community? Moving out to a new area and building the clinic in a new location has been a process that takes a fair amount of time. What we’d like to offer the community, through the training that the students receive, is a level of mental health care and compassion that they currently don’t have access to.  

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.”   

6 Tips for Handling Holiday Stress

We always look to the holidays as a time of celebration; a magical time of good cheer, warm traditions, and being with family and friends. We think of it as a time of rest and relaxation, filled with joy and gratitude for all that we have. Despite the surface magic and positivity, the holidays are often accompanied by even busier schedules and events that can seem daunting. For many people, the mere idea of attending large family gatherings, numerous holiday parties, and all the traveling can produce anxiety, stress, and depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), three out of four people surveyed reported feeling anxious and/or depressed during the holiday season. Holiday parties in particular are a common stressor, especially for those with a social anxiety disorder. For some, they’ll try anything to avoid activities that involve larger groups. For others, the problem lies in attempting to have the “best” Christmas ever, where the thought of something being out of place or decorations falling short can cause significant feelings of distress, as well as fears of disappointing others or feeling that everything they do is being scrutinized and judged.  “There’s just so much that goes into the holidays,” said Dr. Alexis Melville, co-director of the IPS Center for Psychological Services, an outpatient mental health facility located on the campus of Divine Mercy University. “We’re rushing all over the place just trying to tie up loose ends and get everything prepared for the celebrations, but we also tend to self-evaluate how we did throughout the year. There are perceived societal pressures throughout the holiday season that can amplify expectations for ourselves or others, and those expectations can induce a greater anxiety during these times.” You don’t have to succumb to the holiday stress. Here are some ways to help manage the stress this holiday season:
  1. Plan
The holidays may feel like one gigantic party, where everyone is invited and you’re the host. Like with all parties, planning for it is a key practice toward success. Plan your menus, make your shopping list early, and set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. This will help prevent last-minute scrambling for forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup so that you’re not doing EVERYTHING.
  1. Be realistic
We love our traditions, but the holidays don't have to be perfect. In fact, they’re never the same. Life changes. Families grow and traditions will change. You can try to hold onto some old traditions, but try starting new ones too.
  1. Set aside differences
It’s no secret that some family gatherings can be tense, but chances are that everyone is feeling the same holiday stress. Try to accept family members and friends as they are and set aside old grievances. Try to be understanding if others get upset or distressed.
  1. Set healthy boundaries
It is easy to feel pulled in many different directions over the holidays, but don't be afraid to make the choices that feel right for you; overindulgence, especially with alcohol, only adds to the stress. Try to get plenty of exercise and sleep during the holidays. Also try eating a healthy snack before the parties so that you don't go overboard on cheese, drinks, and candy canes.
  1. Take a breather
Make some time for yourself. Spending 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.
  1. Just say no
It’s okay to turn down invitations. We may want to be involved or feel pressured to be involved. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every activity. If it's not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time. Following these tips and strategies can help you reduce anxiety and take control of the holidays. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself still feeling persistently anxious, stressed, or sad. Perhaps there was a change in your life that altered how you approach holidays -- a good friend may have moved far away and can’t celebrate with you, or a loved one passed away. If you lost someone dear to you, it’s normal to feel their absence; it’s normal to feel grief in their absence.  If these feelings last for a while and manifest physically and if you’re feeling irritable, hopeless, unable to sleep or unable to perform routine chores, then you should seek out a mental health professional. The IPS Center at Divine Mercy University offers psychological services 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.