Voices from the Field: Finding Resiliency "In the Moment"
Voices from the Field: A Blog Series
Finding Resiliency "In the Moment"
As the executive director for a community mental health agency in rural South Dakota, Lindsey McCarthy, and everyone on her staff, “wear a lot of hats.” Southern Plains Behavioral Health Services, based in Winner, SD, is the mental and behavioral health services provider for Tripp, Gregory, Mellette, and Todd counties. The 24 people on staff provide case management, counseling, and psychiatric services for all ages in a sprawling southern region of the state. McCarthy is the employee manager, policy-maker, and everyday leader of the organization. In addition, she sits on the school board in her hometown of Burke, SD.
Many hats, indeed, considering the circumstances of the past year. “It has been interesting, to say the least,” McCarthy remarked about recent months, living and working through the COVID-19 pandemic. “I would say the pandemic has really affected every area of my life.”
As many working parents have felt recently, McCarthy’s time is strained with a one-and-a-half year old son at home and a work-life balance that has been shuffled in the alternating days of working from home and going into the office. Despite the unique and challenging situations she faces both personally and professionally, McCarthy finds herself reexamining her health care training in order to maintain not only her wellbeing, but the health and safety of those around her.
Her position as executive director is somewhat recent history, but McCarthy’s heart has always been in mental health care, and in turn, at Southern Plains Behavioral Health Services. Since graduating with her bachelor’s from the University of South Dakota, she has stuck with the agency – even as she went back to school to earn her master’s degree in social work.
A therapist by training, she started her career by working with children and families, then later moved on to working with individuals and training in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). As McCarthy describes it, DBT is a form of therapy that teaches skills for emotional regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness, and interpersonal relationships. At the agency, McCarthy leads a DBT skills group which has provided a useful benchmark for her own mental health.
“If I’m telling somebody that these are skills that they should use when interacting with their family member, who they’re quarantining with and frustrated with, I better be using those same skills,” she remarked. “That therapy has been good for me, in the sense of being a role model to others and improving my life.”
But she is quick to credit others around her, and the resiliency they have shown through the pandemic. Whether they’re staff at Southern Plains or teachers in the Burke school district, McCarthy says COVID hasn’t gotten in the way of doing what needs to be done, for the betterment of the communities they serve.
“Having these people as pillars of support around me, personally and professionally, keeps me grounded and centered,” she said. “I can trust them to be honest while also providing support and encouragement when I need it most.”
In steering her agency to a position of safety at the start of the pandemic, while maintaining all the services, those supports have been crucial. Nearly all the staff transitioned to working from home and reaching clients via telehealth, young and old. McCarthy says the staff has had to get creative in some scenarios, but they’re still able to reach those in need.
The circumstantially forced transition to telehealth has fortunately played out well, McCarthy said, as staff aren’t needing to drive as far to reach certain communities, and at least for a time, overall engagement saw an upward trend. Parents have been more active in their child’s therapy, being at home, and telehealth provides elderly citizens more chances to interact during a time of increased isolation. But, as months dragged on, Southern Plains started receiving more calls related to emergency situations, signaling the strain of the pandemic’s restrictions.
“We saw an increase in no-shows for appointments, people wanting to be seen in person, and overall people getting anxious,” McCarthy said. “It was clear that isolation was taking an emotional toll.”
Inevitably, that turning tide became stressful and burdensome for McCarthy’s teams. She and her managing staff have been working to disseminate resources and trainings related to self-care, and monthly all-hands meetings have become more focused around socialization, group activities, and general fun. “We’ll do things like group trivia. We had a virtual Christmas party with a Christmas hat contest,” said the executive director, providing examples. “We’ve really had a chance to bond with each other, to get to know peoples’ pets who like to be on camera, and really connect more personally than before.”
McCarthy admits the amount of screen time can be problematic, so she’s also encouraging people to take frequent breaks and look into ways to mitigate symptoms such as eye strain and subsequent headaches. Referring back to the DBT training she has in her pocket, McCarthy said one thing she’s practicing is the contributing skill. “It has been nice to simply do something nice for someone else, whether it’s sending a message or giving a gift,” she said. “I think we’ve all been affected by this pandemic, but we’ve also learned that we can still be kind to one another.”
Personally, McCarthy finds her resiliency in being in the moment with all she does. If she’s at home, she keeps her mind there – enjoying her husband’s company and the smile on their son’s face. If she’s at a school board meeting, she’s focusing on the decisions affecting teachers and students alike, she said. That awareness and mindfulness is more than another DBT skill in McCarthy’s mental rolodex, or a “hat” that she wears every day; it’s her means of connecting to the world and finding meaning in everything she does and experiences.
“I’m not entirely sure if it is my faith or my mentality that has driven me to find that level of meaning,” she remarked. “But I feel life would be wasted if we didn’t learn from the moments we have, whether straining or joyous. If we can learn from those times in our lives, we’re all the better for it.
“COVID is no different. We have seen how we are strong and can adapt. We have seen how we can come together and work as a team. Of the many lessons 2020 has provided for us, we see that we can change, and change for the better. And that is quite a lesson!”