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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: Healing Trauma Through The Screen

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When the pandemic first hit, 39-year-old Justin Perry of Perry Counseling Healing and Recovery says that business initially slowed down. That was back when we all thought social distancing would be more of a fun, two-week vacation.

But when people realized the coronavirus wasn’t going anywhere, his phone started to ring. Both new and old clients needed to schedule sessions to help manage the stresses of 2020.

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Alvin C. Jacobs Jr
Justin Perry continues to help clients navigate trauma and stress virtually throughout the pandemic.

"We welcome folks whatever stage of their journey they’re in because we just want to help people get to where they want to be," Perry said.

Which can be a financial challenge for some — especially if they lost their job during the pandemic. Perry says his practice has worked with clients — sometimes through payment plans or sliding scales — to make sure they get the care they need.

"We don’t want money to be the reason why somebody just says 'I’m just done,'" Perry said.

In fact, Perry Counseling Healing and Recovery and Harmony Health (another therapy practice in Charlotte) are partnering to raise funds to subsidize mental healthcare in Charlotte, with a special emphasis on the Black community.

There’s been another hurdle for some seeking mental health care during the pandemic: There’s a general apprehension to virtual therapy.

It’s hard enough to connect with a therapist and be vulnerable in person, let alone through a screen. But he had to level with his clients — to help curb the spread of the virus, for the time being, in-person therapy sessions were a thing of the past.

"We say, 'You know what? I get it,'" Perry said. "Because the truth is, we weren’t trained this way either. But if you’re willing to take a chance on making this work, let's just try it. So far, the reviews have been strong there."

It’s an adjustment, for sure. But he’s still able to build authentic relationships with his clients. Which is good news he says, because people, are stressed. His practice recently created two support groups: one for women struggling to balance work and life and the other to support Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

People still struggle to put boundaries in place while working at home and parents are still trying to figure out remote learning. Everyone’s dealing with something, especially during this time when workdays feel like they bleed into the next. And Perry gets it — he’s a parent working from home too.

"Figuring how to turn it on and turn it off, people who don’t typically work from home where you are literally working in the same place where you sleep," Perry said.

He says clients with addiction struggles and disordered eating are suffering from lack of social interaction. And students are having to come to terms with the fact that life is not what they thought it would look like this year.

"The uncertainty, as well as the battles between parent and child over what I’m permitted to do versus what some other kids parents allow them to do in terms of how we navigate this pandemic," Perry said.

And then, there’s a particular trauma his clients of color are working through. The violent deaths of Black men and women in the news cycle this year — well-known deaths like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — have got the country talking about racial injustice, Perry says. But systemic racism is nothing new to his clients of color, and that can be difficult to explain over and over again to white friends.

"They are happy that a lot of their white colleagues and people in their neighborhoods are awakened to these realities," Perry said. "And there is a level of frustration that’s like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been talking about this forever. This is not new.’ And people say, ‘Wow, this is crazy that this is happening with the police now.’ And it's like this is not a new thing. This has been a forever thing."

Studies have shown there can be a stigma around seeking help for mental health care in the African American community. Perry says that’s starting to change. He can see that change through outreach he’s doing in the community. It’s not a coincidence he says, that more people of color are reaching out to schedule sessions.

"The work around breaking down the stigma, the work around helping to conceptualize oppression as trauma," Perry said. "When people in our field talk about trauma they don’t like to talk about race and trauma and I’m always very direct in saying, 'No, in the same way that sexism is traumatic, so is racism.'"

At one point in his life, Perry planned to pursue a career in civil rights law. But in college he experienced what he refers to as a "dark period," which included a battle with depression. That time in his life led him first to seek therapy, then inspired him to pursue a career as a therapist.

His career now blends those two passions — providing mental health care and providing an important service to people in historically marginalized communities.

Take all of the issues people are dealing with in 2020 and then add this contentious election year America is currently recovering from, and there’s something for everyone to process. People aren’t just struggling to set boundaries with their workplace, Perry says, they’re struggling with relationships that become strained due to the political climate.

"There are some relationships where it’s like, 'OK, we are going to make this work for different reasons,'" he said. "And then there are other ones where it’s like, 'OK, is this becoming more toxic than it is helpful? And do I just love you from a distance?'"

No matter what the issue is that we’re dealing it, it’s easy to feel overcome by, well. anything and everything. The uncertainty of the world. Injustice. The pressures of work. Navigating an extremely difficult and stressful at-home classroom.

He says there’s one thing he keeps coming back to for guidance: the Serenity Prayer.

"It’s 'Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference,'" he said. "Most of us do that in reverse. Most of us focus on all the things we can’t change, which leaves us without the energy to address the things we can change. And then we’re just left perpetually stressed."

So Perry suggests to divide thoughts, worries, and tasks at hand into categories. And to write it out.

"We like to think that our brains are more sophisticated than they really are," Perry said with a chuckle. "Write it out. What can I control? OK, I can’t control that, cool. This is the stuff I'm going to focus on. And once I’ve done all the things on this list, I’m moving on. I’m going to watch the '40-year-old Virgin' and laugh my head off."

Writing these worry charts — that’s what Perry calls them — is something he commonly asks clients to do. To help them get perspective. There are certain things we can’t change especially during this time. But we can work to let go and move forward from what we can’t control.

That’s the message he hopes his clients will get in their sessions.

That's the message he hopes will transport through the screen.

How has your life changed since the coronavirus outbreak? Are you interacting with people differently? Are you able to visit loved ones? Are you delaying major life events like a wedding? Share your stories by leaving us a voicemail at 704-916-9114.

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