As the month of December ushers in colder weather and less sunshine, and as high schools continue to be closed to in-person learning, local psychologist Sarah Lewakowski urges students, school staff and the public to address their mental health needs.

She says the necessity for counseling is at a peak as COVID-19 surges throughout Michigan, bringing anxiety and depression along with it.

“We’ve never experienced how busy we are right now,” said Lewakowski, who has been the executive director of Mosaic Counseling (previously Tri-Cities Ministries) for 17 years. “We are not only providing counseling but have over 85 therapists throughout the county and outside the county.”

The need for counseling has risen across the board, but with COVID-19 disrupting in-person learning for local schools, student help is most impending.

“Last year, we saw 570 kids throughout the county at their school, and that was free counseling,” Lewakowski said. “Total, I believe we had over 3,400 sessions.”

The school outreach program, established 10 years ago, is extremely beneficial, she said. It provides counseling for students within schools that cannot afford it, and for students who are unable to get to a therapist’s office. She stresses the importance of removing barriers, including the transportation and finances that are involved.

“We’re continuing that this year with a combination of either in-person or teletherapy,” Lewakowski said. “We’re switching between the two options and still continue to be remarkable.”

Mosaic also assists the Spring Lake school district and West Michigan Academy of Arts and Academics in Ferrysburg.

This year, Mosaic has begun providing counseling for teachers and administration at Grand Haven Area Public Schools. The Employee Assistance Program is for everyone on staff, including building principals.

The commitment traces back to Mosaic’s foundation – distributing all of its resources back to counseling.

“Our building is very small and our overhead is so low,” Lewakowski said. “We have a very small staff, and therapists have their own offices, but we’re all about providing services.”

Lewakowski noted that Mosaic used to operate out of a house and was rent-free for 38 years. It was founded in 1977 as Tri-Cities Ministries with a committed mission that starts with never turning anyone away. That commitment begins with the overwhelming support of the community, Lewakowski said.

“We don’t receive government support,” she said. “We are the true safety net for mental health services for the county. We receive funds from United Way, Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, The Holland-Zeeland Foundation, churches and fundraisers.”

Mosaic does not receive support from the Ottawa County mental health millage, she added.

As students await further instruction from government officials as to when they’ll be able to return to in-person learning, Lewakowski says the Mosaic counselors are “tremendously concerned” about the children.

“There has to be a place that doesn’t turn them away,” she said. “I just can’t imagine being a parent right now with young children. They’re not used to having their kids at home.”

Prior to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, teletherapy was a rarity, Lewakowski noted.

“Ninety-five percent of counseling was done face to face,” she said. “Almost all the therapists were not accustomed to using teletherapy. Now, we’re doing both, and you have a lot more people doing teletherapy. The problem is, when you’re a parent at home, where are you going to therapy at? Because of that, there has to be counseling in person to accommodate that.

“The things that these kids are experiencing, living in a pandemic, are not normal for any of us,” she continued. “A young person just needs to be with their peers. When you take their traditions away from them – graduation, prom, being with friends and going places like the movies – they are really struggling with depression and anxiety. They are feeling suicidal and attempting suicides, as there have been suicides of young people in this county. It’s almost like they are going through a grieving process of what their life used to be like.”

‘Switchtasking’

More emphasis relies on the balance of technological devices these days. According to Dave Crenshaw’s “The Myth of Multitasking,” there is a study that correlates screen time and the decline in teen mental health, and COVID-19 has acted as a dangerous accelerant.

What Crenshaw’s book examines is a further investigation of multitasking, or “switchtasking” – the continual switching between phones and the world around you, which causes a major source of stress. To battle such anxiety, Lewakowski recommends initiating a routine at home and developing some structure within that routine.

“One of the things that can help them is focusing on one thing at a time, because that’s what happens in school,” she said. “When they’re at home, that structure of routine is limiting their time from other things.”

Crenshaw’s guidelines concur, as reducing switchtasking will help alleviate that stress and give them more time for friends and hobbies, he says.

Another crucial guideline to a healthy mind is the importance of exercise and outdoor activities. Working together to find ways to allow students to safely participate or start a new hobby as a family can be helpful to mental health.

“I think trying to focus on the things you can control and not the things you can’t, along with positive thinking, should be emphasized,” Lewakowski said. “Some of the smallest things can turn out to be big. Trying to boost your immunity will help us get through COVID.”

Hope will help

The most recent news of a potentially successful vaccine is enormous for people, Lewakowski says.

“It’s just giving some light and hope, which is so huge,” she said. “We’re not out of the woods and mental health is the longest lasting effect. It’s going to keep going, which develops into trauma, depression and grieving. But there comes a point where you just have to have some hope to help. I think the vaccine is going to do that and help with that.”

Another bright spot is the change in the stigma attached to mental health for the younger generation.

“It was so hard 15 years ago,” Lewakowski said. “Once we started the school outreach, people really started to feel differently about kids. They are definitely more open. We used to see parents making their kids come in for counseling. Now, a lot more kids are asking their parents or telling their parents they need to talk to somebody. That is a definite shift.”

It’s also increasingly easier to receive help thanks to a text hotline for mental health care.

“Younger people like to text a lot,” Lewakowski said. “People are not as likely to call somebody, so there’s a hotline for kids.”

That hotline can be reached by text message at 741741.

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