By Jerry Fromm, 4x4@4:00 “Talking It Through” Moderator  

Colleen White Holmes, MBA, President and CEO of 18 Degrees (formerly Berkshire Children and Families) will be a panelist at the 2019 Austen Riggs Fall Conference.A prominent theme in the second 4x4@4:00 “Talking It Through” conversation–noted by Colleen Holmes, President/CEO of 18 Degrees–was fragility.” Anxiety and depression associated with the pandemic meet the fragility of families already suffering chronic stress, the fragility of marginal youth tenuously tethered to sources of help, and the fragility of children trying to hold on to hard-won developmental achievements. In many cases, this fragility was already there–a pre-existing condition–but now it is exposed for all to see. The way it is seen is also an issue; that is, the exposure of family problems, and of severely limited resources to deal with them, can make parents feel vulnerable to the judgements of others. The COVID-19 crisis also intensifies frustrations within families, especially for parents charged with managing something they don’t have the power or understanding to manage. How that frustration might be enacted is cause for great worry to those in the mental health community whose job it is to protect vulnerable family members. 

It was eye-opening and reassuring to hear about the various ways mental health professionals are trying to meet these challenges. What came across was the effort to build a vast safety net of therapist-initiated check-ins, parenting groups, warm-lines (peer support helplines), psychoeducation, peer support, and other outreach activities. This net can’t hold everyone–and those building it feel that keenly–but it works well for many, against the odds in some cases. The essential importance of holding the client in mind came through clearly, especially given the broader mindset of distancing. Though the number of volunteers stepping forward and the amazing level of community contribution have been very heartening, the stress on the helpers is real: “The work feeds our souls while we also tear our hair out.” 

Anxiety and depression associated with the pandemic meet the fragility of families already suffering chronic stress.

The conversation went on to explore this stress, which includes the stress on the boundaries between home life and work life, the stress on holding onto mission while feeling disconnected from work, and the different levels of risk staff might be facing with clients. Some mental health staff are “frontline” workers, while some are not, a difference which itself can lead to strain in the system. All of this calls for effective leadership. For some leaders, their view of their role seems based on having the “answers” in the face of problems. But no one has the answers to COVID-19, and, for these leaders, their identity and their organization are shaken. This includes parents, who, as CEOs in the family, struggle with not knowing when everyone, including them, wants them to know. What emerged in the conversation was the importance of holding the mission as the guiding North Star, being transparent about what one knows and doesn’t know, and conveying the confidence that “We’ll figure it out.”  

The next 4X4@4:00 “Talking It Through” sessions will take place at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, June 1; and Monday, June 8.   

For more information and to reserve your place, see our 4x4@4:00 online registration page.  

About 4x4@4:00 “Talking It Through”  

Hosted by Jerry Fromm, PhD, ABPP, senior consultant to and former director of the Erikson Institute of the Austen Riggs Center, the 60-minute “Talking It Through” sessions are offered via Zoom video conferencing. Each gathering begins with an initial conversation among four mental health professionals related to the feelings people are struggling with during the coronavirus crisis. After the initial conversation among the panelists, the dialogue expands to other participants, in the hope that “talking it through” will lead to deeper understanding and mutual support.   


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