“It's been a roller coaster,” said Meghan Nunez, clinical supervisor at Social Advocates for Youth.
Social Advocates for Youth, or SAY, is a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that provides counseling, housing and career services to children, teens and families throughout Sonoma County.
“We had to continue services. We had to keep seeing people especially at that time, because it was so emotion-heavy,” Nunez said.
Before Nunez started at SAY back in February, she worked at Santa Rosa’s Child Parent Institute as a clinical manager and therapist.
“The very first session that I did with a teen, after the shutdown, was on my cell phone sitting in my car in my garage,”Nunez said. “And it was really uncomfortable.”
And when the county shut down last March, Nunez and her colleagues had to think of ways to really connect with clients online.
“We really scrambled to get ourselves trained and how to tune into those nonverbal cues that we rely on in therapy, sometimes, especially with kids,” Nunez said. “We went out and bought toys and stuffed animals and puppets. We were still keeping paper charts.”
Therapists also had to figure out how to access their clients’ confidential records virtually and plan how to continue to meet with them online, in a completely private space.
“That was a big thing, to find a space in my home, where my children weren't gonna walk into the middle of a session, and my husband couldn't hear what I was saying to a client as he walked down the hallway,” Nunez said.
Nunez said privacy was also a challenge for some young clients.
“Some of them share bedrooms with siblings and have a lot of people living in their house,” Nunez said. “And it's loud. And they're trying to talk about really personal, private things, with their siblings listening in on them.”
And privacy and consistency for therapy sessions is important, especially among teens, who were mostly at home while Sonoma County’s COVID numbers surged last winter, unable to go to school, see friends, teachers, coaches and mentors.
“It was stressful,” said Alison Dotti, a psychological assistant at Social Advocates for Youth. “There definitely was a lot of stress of like, how are we going to do this.”
Just like the majority of people in the county, Dotti had to pack up her office quickly and transition to virtual sessions, at first on the phone and then eventually on zoom.
“It felt like we just evacuated very quickly that things were left on the desk that would have been relevant, and that are not relevant anymore,” Dotti said. “And coffee cups and little notes, And just that feeling of just being stranded and all of a sudden, like, just having to leave so quickly.”
Dotti said some of the challenges she saw in kids before the pandemic did not change during shelter in place. And some of her clients struggled with online learning and others preferred it.
“For some youth, they were struggling a lot in school due to maybe bullying or having difficulty with teachers, and having to get online made it easier for them, and they actually did well,” Dotti said.
But she did witness some concerning patterns during the shutdown.
“Probably anxiety was definitely up for some clients as well as depression,” Dotti said. ”I don't know, statistically if it has been more or not, but suicide ideation also seem to be up somewhat and self harm.”
And what Dotti saw aligned with some national trends. Statistically, twenty-five percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 across the nation reported suicidal ideation related to the pandemic last year, according to a survey performed last June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jeremy Bailey, part of a Sonoma County mobile support team, the ones who arrive when law enforcement needs mental health consultation, said his team saw a streak in calls about kids who were in mental health crises.
“They were feeling isolated or not stimulated socially, or whatever they were feeling before the pandemic was harder to deal with as time went on,” Bailey said.
In Nunez’s experience, school plays a big role in identifying the mental health services kids need, so while schools were closed, those needs may have not been addressed as quickly.
“The teachers in the school staff are not seeing the behaviors that they are when they're on campus,” Nunez said. “There's a lot of kids that maybe need services that are not identified.”
The aim is to resume more in-person sessions in mid-July. And therapists will also be able to gather and consult together, another thing that was taken away when therapy was moved to virtual.
“The biggest drawback to this is that we don’t have each other to consult in the moment and process in the moment, with these really big emotions that we are holding,” Nunez said.