Faces of the Pandemic: Aspen Hope’s April Brooks supports clients in crisis
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, fear and uncertainty defined 2020 — and shaped the landscape of mental health services.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, fear and uncertainty defined 2020 — and shaped the landscape of mental health services this year.
“A lot of people aren’t leaving their home, and they’re scared, and it’s affecting mental health completely,” said April Brooks, a crisis clinician and therapist at the Aspen Hope Center. “You walk past someone on the street and they kind of jump off the sidewalk. How do we respond to that?”
Brooks has been on the front lines of that response alongside other mental health workers at the center to meet the needs of the Roaring Fork Valley community during a particularly difficult year for many.
Aspen Hope Center adapted to COVID-19 restrictions by offering telehealth sessions and socially-distanced, masked-up meetings with clients; the organization is “creative and flexible” to meet clients in a way that they are comfortable, according to Brooks.
“I do feel like this valley has really done a lot to try and take care of one another… and (be) respectful to one another,” she said.
But the COVID-19 has presented new challenges in how Brooks provides guidance to people in crisis.
In any other year, Brooks could help a client in crisis “shift focus” by making plans and creating goals for the future over the course of multiple meetings. But amid the many uncertainties of 2020, that’s been near-impossible to do, Brooks said.
“No one can plan for things,” Brooks said. “Everything seems to have been paused, or is in an ever-changing cycle.”
That uncertainty is one of many “compounded stressors” that can create a crisis situation — a tipping point at which “the stressors outweigh their coping skills,” according to Brooks. Those stressors could be anything: financial hardship, familial conflict and environmental changes can combine with internal factors like anxiety and depression.
A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic
The pandemic certainly plays a role: This year especially, people are struggling not only with environmental stressors but also “the unknowns of anxiety and what is coming next,” Brooks said.
“We’ve definitely had an increase in volume for crisis calls and also an increase in volume for people proactively to start therapy to prevent crisis,” she said.
But part of that increased volume could be the product of candid conversations about mental health and the breaking down of a “stigma barrier” that may have once prevented people from seeking help, Brooks noted.
“Maybe before, people didn’t (reach out) because they were trying to handle and cope with things within themselves or within a unit, but now … people are really talking about mental health more,” she said. “It’s almost becoming acceptable.”
Amid the increased volume and the weight of pandemic uncertainty, some days can be challenging, Brooks admits.
“It’s hard to hear people’s intense … psychological pain and the higher levels of stress in people feeling like things aren’t going to get better, because we don’t know when things will get better,” she said. “You see things and you hear things that you do take home.”
She takes comfort in knowing she was available to help others through difficult times. To cope, she leans on a support system of coworkers, meets with outside counsel and there, and practices gratitude for her job and for her home.
“My purpose is to help people and I’m grateful for that,” she said. “Seeking outside counsel and therapy has definitely been something that I’ve accessed this year, and it’s helped keep things processed so I can help others.”
The Aspen Hope Center encourages other frontline workers to do the same: The center offers support and resources to community partners like first responders and law enforcement who need to debrief and process what they witness on the job.
“We are seeing things that other people don’t see,” Brooks said.
Part of that ‘unseen’ experience comes from a trained eye: Brooks believes crisis clinicians can “see or sense fear” in people as they pass by on the street or in the aisles of a grocery store. That fear has been especially prevalent this year amid anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus as well as the tangential stressors that have accompanied it: grief, loss, isolation, new conflicts.
“The lack of connection, it saddens me — people are mean to one another,” she said. “I had an individual tell me yesterday they witnessed a mask fight. … It feels like we’re at war with each other.
In a difficult, isolated year, a hello or a wave could go a long way.
“I think that human kindness is something that I just really noticed, people … need to come back to,” Brooks said. “You never know what someone’s going through.”
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As much as anyone else, Dr. Greg Balko is tired of the pandemic. The emergency medicine physician and other health care workers on the front lines in Aspen are experiencing the same pandemic fatigue that has wearied many in the face of COVID-19.