PROGRESS 2021:

‘The isolation factor’: Mental health worker and domestic violence advocate on services during a pandemic

Published 4:15 pm Friday, March 5, 2021

Though Lizzy Guthrie, a marriage and family therapy associate for Central Kentucky Counseling Associates, and Andrea Lewis, a certified domestic violence advocate with GreenHouse17, have different roles and titles, they’ve both noticed a common thread between their clients during the pandemic — isolation.

Lewis said domestic violence in itself is an isolating experience by nature for victims, but with the pandemic she and other advocates have seen that “play out tenfold” because a victim’s home, the very place where they are being abused, is where everyone is encouraged to stay and spend more time during the pandemic.

And she said she’s seen this play out in the techniques abusers use to exercise power and control over their victims — for instance, they might not let their partners work because they say they’ll bring COVID-19 home to their families, or they might accuse their partners of having COVID-19 and use that as a way to isolate them further from their children, other family members or friends.

“The isolation factor — I feel like we’ve seen that evolve in other ways because of the conditions and because of the circumstances of the pandemic,” she said.

There’s been an increase in need for services, in calls and in domestic violence across the board, Lewis said. She said she believes GreenHouse17, which helps those harmed by intimate partner violence and covers 17 counties, is well-equipped for this increase, since they have a 24/7 crisis hotline and GreenHouse17’s shelter is still operating in Lexington, where the agency is based. Lewis is a domestic violence advocate, as well as an outreach family advocate, who covers Boyle, Garrard and Mercer counties for the agency.

The biggest shift in service delivery in her own work during the pandemic is it has mainly been over the phone or virtual. Sessions with clients during the pandemic have been over the phone, and when going to court to provide support for survivors, which she usually does in person to provide a physical barrier between victims and perpetrators and to make the process of being in a courtroom less unnerving, she has done it through a virtual format like Skype. Through this connection with victims she can educate them about GreenHouse17 and protective orders and provide other services and resources.

Among the changes in need, service delivery and the general state of the pandemic, Lewis has found consistency important to her own mental health. Just like in the pre-pandemic world, during the pandemic she has made sure her work hours are consistent and turns her phone off at 4 p.m. She finds comfort that when she is not available, victims still have the hotline available to them at any time and have resources and help available if she is not accessible. Her work and time boundaries are important to her, and so is being intentional about self-care.

“I’m also very intentional and very adamant about scheduling self-care time into my schedule, enjoying things that are relaxing for me,” she said. “Yoga, exercising, reading a good book, doing mindfulness practices — those are all things that can help sustain me, even pre-pandemic, but that I’m also finding out because of the increase in domestic violence, it’s even more critical for me to be intentional about maintaining those routines and practices.”

When it comes to Guthrie’s experience, she has seen an increase in depression and anxiety and a feeling of isolation and loneliness among her clients.

For the most part she sees a lot of middle schoolers from Jessamine and Boyle counties, and some of them have been spending constant time in their rooms for six to seven days at a time since they’re out of in-person school and can seem severely depressed.

“They’re lonely,” Guthrie said. “They’re desperate for that connection with somebody. They miss their teachers. They miss their friends. And in that middle school age group that I’m seeing, having friends really can help them manage the life changes because they’re kind of in a developmental stage.”

On one hand, that lack of stability can be stressful and damaging, but there’s also opportunity for growth by learning flexibility and adapting to hardship, Guhrie said.

For example, it can give a student who is three-quarters through a semester and struggling a chance to reflect on how they can make a comeback.

Before the pandemic, Guthrie had never done a telehealth session. She went from that to attending a training for three days, which was eight hours a day on video calls, gaining certification to do telehealth, getting approval of the governor, and then being able to schedule with clients virtually.

“And for me, I had three-week-old twins, so it was a lot of change all at once,” she said with a laugh. “And I had to remind myself that I know how to do therapy. I know how to be present with clients. I know how to enter into their story and that I can trust the medium of technology and that telehealth does still work even if we’re on a computer and we’re not in the same room.”

She herself works part-time because she has young twins who were born in February 2020, but for her colleagues who work 40 hours a week, that can mean 40 hours a week of video call sessions. She said she and her colleagues check in with each other and let each other know they are not alone in the exhausting virtual work.

One thing she said she and those doing similar work have noticed is many families are in survival mode, perhaps not showing love and affection like they would normally due to stress, which is something they try to address with therapy. And the pandemic, by keeping couples in the home together more, might make them confront issues that are already there, she said.

One thing she’s noticed with video calls is she can’t always notice body language of clients since she largely sees only heads and shoulders, but for one client while he was on a video call with his wife and Guthrie, she said he realized by seeing his own face on the video call that he looked angry when he was really sad while expressing himself to his wife, allowing the couple a chance to connect they may have not had before.

But people are largely becoming more disconnected from their bodies and themselves, she said.

One way Guthrie tries to stay connected with her own body and self is she has taken up road cycling with three friends who all had babies within a few months of her having twins. The cycling gives her space away from her work and family and gives her a chance to reconnect with her body. She said exercise is important to mental health and lacking during the pandemic, so she encourages it in her clients as well. She and one of her clients walk their dogs over video sessions together.

Another way she has tried to make things more hands-on for clients has been, for some of the time during the pandemic, she has done equine therapy with Hooves of Hope in Danville and at Asbury University’s equine center while she and clients have practiced social distancing and worn masks.

She said one client got emotional and said it was meaningful to see Guthrie face-to-face, so she and the client spread out at the Asbury University arena and took their masks off, and they talked.

“I let her look at me face-to-face, and we talked, and she’s petting the horses, and she’s feeling them,” Guthrie said. “And there’s a big sense of being grounded in getting to do that.”