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Ashland provider offers tools for mental health

Every day, regardless of what else is happening in the world, Emily Strong and her daughter go out and corral their two pygmy goats. They’ll pluck an apple from a nearby tree and feed their horse a snack. Each visit is part of a consistent routine — one often filled with laughter.

Strong, a qualified mental health professional with the Community Counseling Center of Ashland, recognized she is fortunate to have animals at home to bring her joy in times of stress. Still, finding something consistent and enjoyable is one of her top tips for taking a break when current events feel like all too much.

On the basic level, mental health is important for personal safety, Strong said. Beyond that, focusing on physical wellness is a key part of prevention — to avoid finding oneself in crisis. Drawing the positive from a situation is easier for some more than others depending on “genetic predisposition,” she said, but securing a good frame of mind requires intention while we are entrenched in readily available negative news.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 brought considerably higher reports of anxiety, depression, substance use, trauma disorder symptoms and suicidal ideation — comparing the 2020 summer to the previous year. More than 40% of respondents to a representative panel survey reported one or more mental or behavioral health conditions.

Strong expected more locals who would need to access mental health assistance to mediate the “turmoil” surrounding the community, but the overall response has been mixed, she said. Generally, a sense of overwhelm grips her clients, whether as a result of social isolation, post-fire recovery, election stress or other factors.

For example, wind can be a trigger for both children and adults following the Almeda fire, which occurred on a record-setting hot and windy day on Sept. 8. Strong said she hesitates to broadly label the response post-traumatic stress disorder, but the triggering element can lead to hypervigilance and general restlessness, wondering “Could this all happen again?” she said.

Others struggle to understand what property truly meant to fire victims — storage units, homes and items collected over lifetimes. Some have neglected their own experiences knowing other people have suffered comparatively worse hardship, Strong said.

She guides a “Rising from the Ashes” group twice per week, which follows the Center’s approach of recognizing each person’s traumatic account of the day of the fire on an individual or shared community level.

“I think everybody needs to process those things, and it’s OK to give yourself that time to look at, ‘What did that mean to me?’ and ‘How did that feel for me?’” she said.

Adolescent mental health is a crisis situation as well, Strong said, as several youth resiliency factors have been lost. If family stress exists at home, many students use school as a physical getaway. Others rely on sports for a sense of escape and relief. Neither is continuously accessible in a pandemic-plagued landscape.

Some parents struggle with a feeling of ineptitude at home, if they cannot support their child sufficiently with online schooling or simply aim to make ends meet, she said.

“People have this sense of weight on their shoulders because there’s so many different stresses that they’re juggling right now,” Strong said.

While mental health is unique to each individual, she identified some generally helpful tools, including normalizing feeling overwhelmed, practicing self care and employing mindfulness.

“Taking a moment on a walk, to really be in that moment, and using your five senses to tap into what is real right now as opposed to, ‘What are our thoughts,’” Strong said.

Noticing thought patterns can also be helpful, by allowing a thought to come, then letting it pass and finding the moment again, she said.

Limiting media intake, such as deciding when during the day to consume information, can prevent a first-thing-in-the-morning phone check from impacting the day negatively overall. In her own family, Strong focuses on her animals and consistent sources of joy, despite constant daily changes on national and global scales.

As certified professionals navigate crises and aim to continue providing necessary services, others are testing a nonclinical approach to offering emotional support.

The Hearth, a nonprofit focused on community storytelling, organized a compassionate listening program a few weeks after the Almeda fire directed toward those most affected by the fires and people who provided direct response and relief services.

“Neighbor to neighbor care is what we’re trying to provide to those who are hurting in the wake of these fires,” founder Mark Yaconelli said.

Compassionate listeners are not qualified mental health professionals, but open another avenue for support, as counseling services face an overwhelming 4,500 displaced people who may benefit from emotional care, he said.

More than 100 volunteers signed up for a full day and three evening trainings focused on listening skills and group processing. Trained compassionate listeners offer emotional support in one-on-one settings, in teams at resource centers and through group listening circles.

The resource center format allows frontline relief workers to do their jobs, while a volunteer compassionate listener offers a listening ear for a fire victim’s full story, Yaconelli said.

The fires revealed a divide between Latino and white communities in the Rogue Valley — one he hopes to bridge through compassionate listening. Despite intentions to share resources from the white community, many of the necessary foundational relationships didn’t exist to connect with Latino residents directly, he said. The core team directing the listening program is intentionally balanced with members of both groups.

“We do believe that every person has the capacity to listen, has the capacity to offer compassion, and there’s an opportunity here for us to come together in ways that are stronger than we were before the fire,” Yaconelli said. “There’s an opportunity for us to bridge that divide between our white and Latinx neighbors and for people to start caring and building relationships in a way that hasn’t happened in the past.”

The Community Counseling Center of Ashland can be contacted at 541-708-5436 and can refer clients to Spanish-speaking providers if necessary. Resources are also listed at roguevalley.recovers.org/resources.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

The Community Counceling Center in Ashland. (Allayana Darrow / Ashland Tidings)