Divinity Alumni Offer Perspectives on Navigating Stressful Times
Caring for mental, emotional, and spiritual health
Laurea Glusman McAllister, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Raleigh, N.C., has been struggling since the coronavirus started disrupting the normal flow of life.
McAllister, who earned a master of divinity and master of social work dual degree from Duke Divinity School and UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007, has reduced her work hours as she balances caring for her 2-½-year-old daughter and patients.
“I am working from home doing all telehealth, sometimes with my daughter screaming outside the door as I’m trying to help a client,” she says.
McAllister is married to John Michael McAllister, a fellow Duke alum with the same dual degrees who is a United Methodist minister. “We have a particular problem right now: everyone needs us.”
Many Crises and Stressors
Mental health professionals are finding themselves having to assist people as they are coping with a confluence of crises ranging from financial destruction to the collective loss of a way of life to the stress and exhaustion of renewed focus on racial injustice.
According to Dr. Toby James, a psychologist and director of Pastoral Care & Counseling at Alliance Medical Ministry based in Raleigh, patients are dealing with increased anxiety, job loss, food insecurity, social isolation, and the challenge of home-schooling.
Alliance Medical Ministry provides affordable medical and mental health care to working, uninsured adults living in Wake County.
“We need to focus on what we can do rather than focusing on what we can’t do,” says James, M.Div.’10. “There’s a tremendous need for self-care, and it needs to be a more an intentional process. We have to find a new rhythm and take advantage of the simplicity of life that the pandemic restrictions have created.”
James finds activities such as landscaping and gardening, eating more meals at home, and exercising keeps him centered. While James now performs his job via telehealth, he still drives to the office during the work week. He and his peers gather in a large room, wearing their masks, and start the morning with a prayer.
“It’s been quite a ride,” says James. He’s working the same hours but seeing more patients. He attributes the rise in appointments to people suffering from more anxiety and having more time to deal with mental health issues since they are often sheltering in place. His clientele tends to be older, the majority between the ages of 40 to 60.
“It’s liberating to work as a pastoral counselor because I am aware of how much the Holy Spirit is doing in the room,” he says. His training as a therapist is in both psychology and theology. Depending on the preferences of the person he’s working with, “I can feel free to explore the patient’s theology as well as the psychological process.”
Dr. Tonya D. Armstrong, a licensed psychologist with offices in Raleigh and Durham, says she’s been fortunate to have her husband who had been working part-time out of state now at home working remotely.
“It’s very important finding a balance between daily routines and introducing novelty in your life,” says Armstrong, M.T.S.’03. “So that you are not going stir crazy, you need some excitement, something to look forward to.”
Armstrong personally dresses during the work week the same way she was before the pandemic. She wears her professional clothing and jewelry, and then applies her makeup and perfume.
But she’s added a new routine, the “daily words.” It was sparked by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests globally in response to the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
“We are having more time to have more conversations about all kind of things,” says Armstrong, who has a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. She’s instituted “nightly words.”
“It’s a combination of a SAT word of the day since my children are preparing for standardized testing,” she explains. “We go over how you spell it and how you use it. Next we go to the Scripture of the day using biblegateway.com. We read through it and discuss it and talk about how it relates to current events. Then we have a jar full of questions. Everyone contributes a topic—it ranges from what we think about George Floyd and everything in between.”
Armstrong, the author of Blossoming Hope: The Black Christian Woman's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness, notes that people who are struggling because they are bored and need a break from the daily dose of bad news can do one of exercises suggested in her book.
She’s made available “111 Blossoming Hope Tools” on her website https://drtonyaarmstrong.com/. Ideas and tools include healthy distractions such as planting herbs in your garden, doodling, sipping on a cup of tea, or sending a letter to a friend.
Women on Overload
Both Armstrong and McAllister have noticed that women tend to be overwhelmed as the caregiver during this time.
“My husband is a very involved father, but women handle more of the caregiving tasks,” McAllister says. “I do all the meals. Women are the project organizers. He can take care of our child on his own but he can’t figure out where the clothes come from, the food. I was socialized to do that. Women manage the project. We make sure we have all the supplies.”
Women especially are often very sacrificial, Armstrong explains. “We justify that through Scripture. There’s a good aspect in being faithful, but women have gone overboard with that. We still have to maintain boundaries and clarify our priorities.”
While she knows women are often fatigued by the responsibility of caring for children or older relatives (or both), she believes that women have to find time for themselves. “If I only have an hour, I need to be clear on what I do in that hour. I also need to clarify why it is I have one hour and my partner has five hours. We need to equip our children and partners to contribute to what happens. This is a great time to rewrite some of the rules.”
“Don’t underestimate the impact COVID-19 is having on you,” McAllister says. She’s noticing her patients are anxious all the time. “But they will say, I don’t think it’s the pandemic.”
“People who are more insulated and privileged don’t recognize the stress they are having. They minimize what the quarantine is doing. It’s affecting everyone.”
One gesture of kindness that McAllister suggests is cooking a big meal and giving it to a neighbor or a friend. “Sharing a recipe or meal is a small thing that goes a long way toward supporting one another.”
“We have to manage expectations. Getting through, staying safe, and doing something with meaning each day is enough,” she says. “Be gentle with yourself.”
“My client load is filled with perfectionists,” says McAllister. “They are trying to over-function, and I’m trying to get them to ease up.”