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​ Community Care: A Mental Health Check-In
Stacey Karpen Dohn, PhD, LPC / Senior Manager of Behavioral Health
Stacey Karpen Dohn, PhD, LPC / Senior Manager of Behavioral Health

March 17, 2020

When the first stories of an unknown virus occurring in China began appearing in the news, most of us couldn’t begin to imagine how dramatically life in the United States would change in just a few months. As our Whitman-Walker Health family adjusts to a new normal, we wanted to take a moment for a mental health check-in.

How are you doing? No, really… How are you really doing? Scared? Frustrated? Angry? Frightened?

So many feelings. All are valid.

As a therapist, I rarely find myself telling clients to isolate. Most days I am assertively encouraging my clients to do just the opposite. “We are hardwired for connection!” I exclaim on a nearly daily basis (a favorite quote of mine borrowed from the researcher and author Dr. Brené Brown). Research shows us that social connection is protective against depression, anxiety, substance use and other mental health issues. And yet, today I am fielding calls from concerned clients imploring them to stay home, hunker down, and isolate. To protect our physical health, we are actively taking steps to, potentially, jeopardize our mental health. However, social distancing does not have to be entirely isolating.

Instead of the public health directive “social distancing” I prefer the term “community care.” By staying home and isolating as best we can, we are caring for our communities by prioritizing the health of those most vulnerable to COVID-19. We are also doing what we can to decrease exposure so that we can reduce the burden on healthcare professionals in medical centers and hospitals. So, we distance and isolate in a profound act of caring for each other.

Community care is not new for LGBTQ communities. We have been caring for each other through difficult times throughout history. A few weeks ago as we were discussing COVID-19 precautions a colleague of mine alluded to his memories of the 80s and early 90s, of friends and loved ones dying every day during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Illness, disease, and death are part of the narrative of LGBTQ communities. So, too, are resilience, strength, and community.

My clients are sharing with me that the language they are hearing on the news and in conversation brings them back to the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic: virus, infection, positive, negative, testing, pneumonia, infection rate, exposure, protection, death rate… the list goes on. People are wearing masks and gloves, and many are afraid of touching, of hugging, of being near each other. The trauma of the HIV/AIDS epidemic lives with many of us, and we must allow ourselves to feel and express the sadness, anger, fear and whatever else we may be feeling. Trauma is real. Feel what you are feeling. Journal. Create art. Tell a friend. Light a candle. You are not alone.

That being said, you may not be alone, but you may feel lonely. How do we manage loneliness? How do we engage in community care that goes beyond staying home and avoiding public contact? Now more than ever we have to prioritize connection instead of avoiding it.

An exercise I often give clients is to pick a few people in their life who make them feel cared for. Text or reach out to each person and ask them to check in on you over the next few weeks. A check-in could be a quick text, a phone call, a FaceTime chat, a funny gif. It doesn’t have to be long or in depth. The purpose of this exercise is to feel more confident asking for the support that we need. By asking someone else to check in on you over the next few weeks, you are identifying your own needs and actively seeking care and compassion. You can also reverse this exercise and reach out to your loved ones and friends. Schedule calls and phone dates. Now is the time to connect. Don’t allow the need for distancing to force you to disconnect.

Today, and always, our Whitman-Walker family is here for you. We see you. We care deeply for you. Between the hours of 9am to 5pm, if you feel you need some additional mental health support please call us at 202-745-7000 and we will connect you to care by phone.

I close this message with powerful and poetic words from Lynn Ungar’s “Pandemic”:

...And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.


Know that we are connected


in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.


(You could hardly deny it now.)


Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.


(Surely, that has come clear.)


Do not reach out your hands.


Reach out your heart.


Reach out your words.


Reach out all the tendrils


of compassion that move, invisibly,


where we cannot touch....

Check out these links for helpful information about managing your mental health during this time:

All our Services are available in multiple languages upon request.

Our bilingual staff and volunteers will help get the language services you need!

202.745.7000

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