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.

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.

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.