Feel connected and maintain mental health, with technology, spirituality and routine

Interfaith Counselling Centre’s Interim Executive Director Matthew Isert Bender is temporarily working from home, rather than the agency’s New Hamburg-based offices. “It’s almost like starting a new job.”

Photo Hanneke Isert Bender

It’s not just the public that is having to adapt to life during the current COVID-19 lockdown. Physical distancing is also presenting challenges to non-profits like Interfaith Counselling Service (ICC), which is used to meeting with clients in person.

Now, with sessions being conducted remotely, the New Hamburg-based agency’s mental and emotional health therapists are working from their homes. “It’s almost like starting a new job,” said Interim Executive Director, Matthew Isert Bender. Counsellors need a sufficiently powerful Internet connection for online video counselling, as well as a separate room that allows for privacy during sessions.

Many of the crises people are facing are not new, but they have been amplified by the imposed seclusion.

“At a time of crisis like this, it reinforces where there is health and where there are some cracks. If someone is prone to anxiety, this just heightens it. Where there is some relationship struggle and tensions, it can heighten it. If someone is experiencing grief and then this comes, it heightens that grief.”

There are concerns about family violence, said Isert Bender. “If family relationships are generally good, this is kind of a nice retreat time, a break from normal routines. If there’s tension, you may look forward to going to school to get away from home. That hasn’t changed. It’s more of a concern for some organizations, such as women’s shelters. They’re pretty swamped.”

ICC recently learned it had been awarded a grant for $15,000 from the COVID-19 Community Response Fund, a group initiative led by United Way Waterloo Region Communities. “It’s wonderful that the different foundations are working together,” said Isert Bender, adding how much he appreciated the funding. “It will support our ability to provide counselling, and fully or partially subsidize those who are unable to pay.”

Although counselling sessions can be held over the phone, many clients prefer to see someone on the other end. “If the video connection is good, you feel more connected to the person you’re talking to.”

Remote working has meant finding new ways of serving the public. “It was one of our long-term goals to explore going digital and only having digital files, not needing paper files. This forced us to figure out how to do it.”

People can use communication technology to support their own mental health, suggested Isert Bender. “During physical isolation, how do we avoid social isolation? Phone calls, Zoom, Skype, these help us keep connected.”

He believes people will begin to ask spiritual questions about their life priorities.

“This has really shaken up a lot of people. What really is secure? What really matters? If I can live three months without certain things that took so much of my time, are they actually as important as I thought they were?”

“We also need to stay connected to ourselves, spiritually. We can ask, ‘what’s one thing to be thankful for’ each day.”

Even with a positive outlook, Isert Bender said it’s important people also allow themselves to experience sorrow and “give ourselves permission to say, ‘This sucks.’ One of my own laments is that I would have run the Boston Marathon (on April 20).”

He suggested engaging in spiritually nourishing rituals, such as prayer, meditation or yoga.

“In a moment of a lot of change and needing to start anew, it kind of disrupts our rhythm and our routine. For good mental health, part of it is we have some rhythm, such as getting up and showering around the same time. In a little way, there feels like there’s some order, a bit of predictability. We need some of that.”