Mental and emotional health during a pandemic: a Q&A with Joel Siebersma - Springs Rescue Mission Mental and emotional health during a pandemic: a Q&A with Joel Siebersma - Springs Rescue Mission


In observation of Mental Health Awareness Month


As director of addiction and recovery for Springs Rescue Mission, Joel Siebersma heads up the New Life Program and is the organization’s resident expert on mental and emotional health.

We thought it would be a good and interesting idea to discuss with him the impact COVID-19 — and the loss and isolation that has come with it — in regard to these issues.

Here is what he had to say:


How is all of this impacting people’s mental and emotional health?

From a New Life Program perspective, it’s interesting. In one sense, disruption, perceived chaos and uncertainty is where a lot of our guys have their sweet spot. It’s not all that different than usual. … In a very real way, this kind of mimics their expectation of reality more than it does the general population. …. This sort of uncertainty and disruption fits their addicted and traumatized mindsets fairly well. What the general population sees as disruption that results in anxiety, instability, insomnia and other coping mechanisms is just another day for them.

How does isolation play into that?

I think the big picture is that it challenges us to examine who we are. As much as we’d like to bill ourselves as a self-discovery, self-actualization, self-expression society, we actually don’t enjoy looking into who we really are. For most people, I think it results in more questions than it does answers. Isolation really accelerates that process, and people respond in one of two ways: They either embrace it, accept it and really do examine who they are; or they avoid it and run from it, and depend on entertainment and distraction to keep from having to answer that question.

What impact have you seen on people who are in recovery from drugs and alcohol?

For guys early in sobriety and recovery, this feels fairly normal because it is what they’re used to. But part of that recovery journey is us trying to teach them that this is not normal — stability, connection and regularity is normal. … I’ve seen much more disruption in people who are much farther along in that journey. In the four months before this all happened, we had one drug and alcohol relapse in the NLP. However, in the last four weeks we’ve had four relapses. I believe that a large part of that is that they were beginning to depend on a regularly scheduled, functioning society; and when that went away, it challenged them and they just weren’t able to adapt.

How do you see these issues affecting the general population?

I think people who felt like they were making progress, who were invested and engaged in their mental health — people who were active and involved — will continue to find new ways to adapt and find the resources they need during this time. … But I think people who felt that they were on the fringes probably feel even more like they’re on the fringes now. I think what’s happening right now really magnifies those things that were already taking place. I don’t know that it necessarily changes or creates it, but it does bring things to the surface.

Do you think these circumstances can be traumatizing and/or triggering for people?

Yes, absolutely. If someone comes into this with a background of trauma, especially an isolating trauma, this can definitely be triggering and hard to deal with. And I do think it can be traumatic. If much of your sense of self comes from your regular schedule, your regular income — a stronger external locus of control — this can definitely be a traumatic event. If someone has a more internal locus of control — they know who they are regardless of the circumstance — I think they will be able to navigate these times a little bit easier. …. So, for those people who depend heavily on those external factors for safety and security, it can definitely be traumatic.

Can you tell me what it might be like for people who are experiencing disappointments or loss due to the pandemic?

For people who are just starting to dip their toe back into the waters of society, what’s going on right now might make them feel like there’s no point in trying. For people who have started finding their place in larger groups and or finding some larger meaning and suddenly it all disappears, it’s a good excuse for them to just say, “forget it. I’m not doing this anymore. I might as well go back to what I know — what’s comfortable.” … Coming out of poverty and addiction and into recovery, you need a lot of momentum. When there’s a giant roadblock that gets in the way of that, that momentum can dissipate; and it becomes harder to restart.

What would you say about people experiencing the loss of loved ones right now?

There’s a lot of what we call “unresolved grief.” We are not a society that grieves well to begin with, and that will be magnified by this. … Healthy grieving will not be able to happen for a lot of people, because there aren’t a lot of memorials and graveside services going on. … The proper response for this time is lament. That’s what everyone — Christians specifically — should be doing right now. We shouldn’t be asking why or blaming each other. We should be lamenting and having that grief response. When we don’t get to do that as a country or as individuals (like when a loved one dies), we miss out on a huge emotional process that is put in place to really heal and move on.

What are some basic, practical ways people can deal with grief right now?

I think being intentional about memorials and finding ways to intentionally grieve the situation is important. … Whether it be a loved one, a job, an opportunity, try to find a way you can process it well. Write about it, blog about it, post pictures online, create a memorial, make a slideshow. Make time to grieve. Acknowledge that you’re sad and be intentional about the process. Don’t run from it. … Call others to talk about it or use the online, virtual tools we have to stay connected. … We shouldn’t avoid it — we should lean into it.

What would you say are some other ways people can cope with the current situation?

I think right now, more than ever, it’s very important to have a generous amount of self-compassion — understanding and acknowledging that this is a strange and difficult time. We need to acknowledge that these are hard times, and to lament that. Instead of avoiding some of the challenging questions, really lean into those challenging questions.




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About the Author - Cameron Moix

Cameron Moix is the Content Marketing Coordinator for Springs Rescue Mission. Originally from central Arkansas, he holds a BA in mass communications (print journalism emphasis) from the University of Arkansas - Little Rock. Most of his career has been spent in print journalism, including four years as a reporter for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.