As the COVID-19 pandemic clouded over, our colleagues at dsm Magazine launched the specialty panel series Lifting the Veil — Life Interrupted by COVID-19, a six-week virtual series. The last panel in the series could not be more timely: “Equity and Inclusion Interrupted,” which takes place June 5 from noon to 1 p.m. (registration is free and online). 

The panel is designed to explore how pandemics exacerbate existing inequities. But as the death of George Floyd and the accompanying wave of protests shake our community, we reached out to panelist Sharaine Conner, a mental health and addictions therapist at Thriving Families Counseling Services. In the following Q&A, Conner talked with us about the immediate impact of this week’s news cycle on mental health, and how she is helping her clients address and cope with anxieties. 

How does news coverage of both peaceful protests and violence during the pandemic affect your clients’ ability to cope with mental health and stress? 

Just from experience over the last several days, it’s definitely been a topic of conversation in almost every session that I’ve had. I think people are having a lot of trouble. … There are definitely people who want the peaceful protest and they understand that dynamic, but then they don’t understand the violence. … Sadly, I think social media and the news coverage [lead] with a lot of the violent parts. They’re talked about more. So you lose the message of what the peaceful protest really brings, because everybody talks about the rioting and the looting. 

Nobody talks about the fact that before all that happened, there were very peaceful marches and things going on in the name of what we were doing it for, George Floyd or whatever the case may have been. I think people are confused by that. It stresses you out — people are concerned about these things happening in their neighborhood. … There’s not a real message coming out anymore, and I think that makes it harder for people to understand how to cope with it. 

Is it possible to know what the long-term impact of this era will be on individuals’ mental health or treatment? 

With most of these issues, whether it’s depression, anxiety, addiction, we have coping strategies for a reason. I tell a lot of my clients, what we’re always working towards is the unknown. When we are working together therapeutically, we are trying to make things as normal as possible, as stable as possible. There’s always going to be that one outlier, the one thing that surprises you, and that’s the thing that we’re always working on. … How do we breathe through those exercises and meditate, or journal. 

The hope is that when that impact comes, it won’t have as huge of an impact or as deep of an impact as it would have been without those skills ready. … There’s no telling what this is going to do to future generations, but I think the sooner that we can put a cap on it and get these kids and these young adults able to process and deal with things, the better. 

We are seeing a lot of the looting and things happening … by mostly kids, mostly younger people. That says something — we haven’t really taught our younger generation how to cope. They’re scared, they’re reacting in the only way that they know how … and that equals violence, or looting, or however you want to express it. That’s their way of trying to speak to us. If we were able to teach them there’s better ways to cope with what’s going on in the world, there’s better ways to communicate your frustration or anxiety, we might have a better shot. 

As a mental health professional, you are experiencing all these events yourself and helping others process their feelings. What has that toll been like on you? 

We’re dealing with a lot of the same concerns, anxieties and issues that you are every day. … There’s not always people there to help us through our parts of it, which is why we learn to support each other. I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, I don’t know if there’s going to be another riot or if the National Guard is coming. That’s terrifying in its own way. 

I’m thinking about my family and the choices that I make in the next several weeks, because I think those things are really going to matter. … I already voted today because I’m thinking, what is the future going to hold? What part did I play? 

What’s something that you’re doing for yourself this week to cope with everything that’s happening in the world right now? 

I’m giving myself space. I’m giving myself time away from work, away from busyness, and having time to spend with my loved ones and my family. My family’s very important to me, so for us to talk about these issues and support each other, I think that’s really important. 

I also feel like I’ve been reaching out to more friends lately and more friends have been reaching out to me. As a person of color, I think that many of my Caucasian allies have been reaching out and showing their support — “we’re with you, we don’t know what you’re going through but we’re here.” That’s been really surprising as a person of color but really nice as well. It wasn’t really something I expected, but it’s interesting how that is happening. 

What’s your main takeaway for people?

We have to talk to each other. Doing the work that I do every single day … one of the biggest blunders we can have is not talking to each other. Actually, I take it back — not talking to each other, but listening to each other. We haven’t really been taught how to listen to each other, process what we’re listening to instead of taking offense to it, and learning from the experience instead of blaming people. 

Talk to each other, listen to each other, talk to our kids and our little ones and stop this stuff before it goes too far.