Stories of hope and resilience for Mental Health Month
May is Mental Health Month. COVID-19 threatened not only people’s physical health, but also their mental health. For some, the pandemic intensified existing conditions such as anxiety and depression, and for others it created new mental health challenges. These are stories of hope and resilience.
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Rachel Auten found out she was expecting again in mid-May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’d had a miscarriage a few months earlier, in January 2020.
“When we found out we were pregnant the second time, it was still very overwhelming to be in that state during the pandemic, but we were thrilled and excited,” she said.
The week before Christmas 2020, Auten was eight months pregnant. Her husband, Jared Auten, had been feeling “off” and went to see his primary care doctor. That same day, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and three days later, on his 28th birthday, he had surgery. Within two weeks of his diagnosis, he started chemotherapy.
Nothing about this was the way Rachel Auten had pictured her pregnancy would go. At the end of January, she went into labor and drove herself to LMH Health. Jared Auten was already there for a chemotherapy treatment. Their daughter, Maris, was born shortly after 9 p.m.
The Autens are all doing well now. But for Rachel and Jared, the experience of being pregnant and delivering a baby during a pandemic — as well as dealing with a cancer diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy — was difficult not just physically but mentally.
“We are in this field and we know resources and all of that, but I will still say it was completely overwhelming,” Rachel Auten said. “It was an eye-opening experience for us and a reminder of how difficult mental health challenges can be.”
Jared Auten is the training coordinator for Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ, formerly Headquarters. Rachel Auten is director of student support and case management, which is an office under the umbrella of Student Affairs at the University of Kansas.
In her conversations with students, Rachel Auten tries to normalize mental health.
“It’s very much normalizing their experience, letting them know they are not alone. One approach I always take is equating mental health to physical health: there’s no difference,” she said. “You’re taking care of your body and mind, and it’s one and the same.”
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Kris Rawls is a Bert Nash WRAP (Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities) therapist. WRAP is a partnership between Bert Nash and Douglas County schools. Rawls has been a WRAP therapist at Baldwin Middle School since fall 2019.
When the pandemic struck, Rawls and other WRAP therapists and school social workers started reaching out to students and families they had been working with. Rawls has seen students’ mental health suffer throughout the pandemic.
Rawls said it is important to have conversations about mental health.
“One of the things I think is super important is normalizing mental health,” he said. “We need to talk about it in terms of wellness. And, in order to be completely well, we need to be well physically as well as mentally.”
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Elena Theresa, who is part of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma and works for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, helped out at the last mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic on April 28 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. She wore traditional Native American regalia in honor of her grandfather Burgess Tapedo.
Tapedo, who was part of the Kiowa Tribe, died July 22 from COVID-19 complications. He was 88.
“It was really sad to see him so helpless and so defenseless,” Theresa said. “It was really upsetting … to know that there are people in this country and globally still dying from it every day.”
When her grandfather was hospitalized and intubated, family members said their goodbyes over Zoom.
“It’s really upsetting that that’s how it ended and that’s how we had to say goodbye,” Theresa said. “It was awful saying goodbye over Zoom. I don’t think anyone should ever have to do that. COVID hasn’t given the world a chance to grieve, because we’re still in it.”
Theresa was attending classes at Haskell Indian Nations University when the pandemic happened, and she ended up withdrawing from her classes. She plans to return to school at some point. For now, she is focused on taking care of her 3-year-old daughter, keeping her family and her community safe and honoring her grandfather.
“To be there and to equip my community with this vaccine, I thought about him, my grandfather, the pillar of this family, who protected this country and who protected our family,” she said. “I felt like I was honoring him by trying to protect my community as well.”
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Before Amy Carrillo was diagnosed for the first time with the coronavirus in March 2020, she was a healthy and active person.
“I thought I wouldn’t get COVID and if I did get it, that it wouldn’t be a big deal. But when I did get sick, I wasn’t prepared for how horrible it was and that it didn’t get better, that it kept getting worse,” she said.
Carrillo has had long-hauler symptoms since she was diagnosed the first time. She was diagnosed with COVID for the second time in December 2020. Her mental health also suffered. Thanks to the support of family and friends as well as therapy, Carrillo was able to start to feel more like herself again, both physically and mentally.
“The love and support I got from our community and from friends and family was amazing,” Carrillo said. “I got back into therapy when I could, which was super helpful. I’ve had depression in the past. I took medication to help me sleep and for anxiety and depression, and I continue to go to therapy. It’s helpful when people talk about mental health and de-stigmatize it.”
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From her role as an after-hours screener for the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, as well as in her own private counseling practice, Namaste Manney has seen an increase in people’s anxiety and depression because of the pandemic.
Manney said Mental Health Month is a reminder that it is important for people to have conversations about mental health.
“Having those conversations, one-on-one, within families, in schools,” she said. “Not only does mental health need to be talked about, but we need to listen. Like with adolescents and teens, who’s listening to them? Who is taking them seriously when they say that they are struggling, and how can we support them better? Let’s talk … but also let’s listen.”
— Jeff Burkhead is communications director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.