For one Tempe therapy office, pandemic first meant canceled sessions. Now more seek help

Christopher Roth
Arizona Republic

As the world comes to grips with the prolonged effects of the COVID-19 crisis, local therapists are now tasked with navigating new challenges in meeting the needs of their patients, along with helping them keep an eye towards an uncertain future.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus may be stressful for some people as fear and anxiety can be overwhelming and cause strong emotion in adults and children.

Valley therapists are seeing this firsthand. Jaime Castillo, a licensed clinical social worker, said she's seen both her co-workers and patients start to worry as the new realities of the coronavirus pandemic set in. 

"When the news of this all broke, I think we saw some people panic and cancel appointments out of what we suspect was fear of the unknown and what's going to happen to the economy and their jobs," said Castillo, who owns Find Your Shine Therapy in Tempe. 

Castillo, along with six other mental health therapists in the Tempe office, specialize in treating trauma and anxiety in age groups from adolescents to seniors. 

At first, Castillo said the number of appointments dropped and then became stagnant. She speculated this was likely due to patients waiting to learn what would happen to their jobs and their financial situations. Others may have been too overwhelmed to even seek help. 

"Since then, it has picked up and people are beginning to settle in for the long haul. People are now overwhelmed and reaching out for support."

Video sessions offered as an alternative

Patients that come to the office — especially those that don't want to be in close contact with others — can opt to have virtual sessions. 

Others may have waited to seek help out of concerns about their job and finances, she said. With this in mind, Castillo and her colleagues have referred patients to online support groups, which allows them to get needed support at a lower cost. 

Many people moved their therapy appointments from in-office to online, but it's not the right choice for everyone, Castillo said. 

"Some people don't have the ability to access a confidential location in their home. Some may not have access to a computer," she said. "Some people are higher risk and we need to be able to continue their care, and keep it as consistent as possible."

Emma Lauer, a licensed social worker who also works in the office, said she was surprised by how open patients were to video sessions.

"Patients have shown the flexibility to doing sessions from home because some don't want the face-to-face contact, and some have shown less vulnerability from behind a screen, Lauer said.

However, Castillo noted some patients were a bit hesitant to make the switch.

"The change is hard for people going from an in-person format to not really knowing what to expect," she said. "They are wondering, 'Is this going to be a break in the rapport? Is it going to interrupt my treatment progress?' "

Using a time of uncertainty to reflect and think about the future 

"We need that sense of predictability and normalcy as humans, so this has shattered any sense of in our lives of what we have created," Castillo said. "There is no telling what's going to happen next, and I think that's really hard for people to cope with."

It's also a time of grief. 

"Who would have thought we wouldn't be able to go to restaurants or be able to go to a game," said therapist Elizabeth Leary, who also works in the office. "It's the grief of people dying as a nation, but also the grief of not being able to do what we want."

Castillo said it's helpful to consider that we will be telling the story of this pandemic for generations to come. People can ask themselves, "What kind of person will I have wanted to be throughout that experience?"

People can reflect on their core values and try to live them out every day. They can take this time to learn more about themselves, she said. 

"I think that can instill a sense of control again. I may not be able to control this enormous pandemic, but what I can do is be a compassionate person, and exercise the stability I do have," said Castillo.

Reach the reporter Christopher Roth at Christopher.Roth@gannett.com or on Twitter @cprothnews