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Live Comfortably - May 16, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month:
Q&A with Goodwin Living Mental Health Counselor, Greta Christ

By Nada Boris

Mental health is as crucial to overall well-being as physical health, perhaps more so. Recent studies underscore the profound impact mental health can have on our longevity and overall health. Despite this, many older adults shy away from seeking mental health support or discussing their struggles. Their hesitation is often cited as a generational stigma surrounding mental health.

In this Q&A with Greta Christ, a Licensed Professional Counselor at Goodwin Living, we aim to address these barriers and gain insights into promoting mental well-being among older adults. In her new role, Greta Christ is a mental health counselor for Goodwin Living campuses (GHA, GHBC, and TVA), supporting older adults and well-being as part of the latest addition to wellness programs available to Goodwin Living residents as of February 2024.

Tell us about yourself and your role at Goodwin Living?

Greta: My name is Greta Christ, and I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor for Goodwin Living. I’ve been a team member since 2017.  In my new role, I provide on-site individual counseling and psychotherapy to residents of Goodwin Living. This entails providing a non-judgmental and confidential space, where one can process emotions, gain insights, learn new coping strategies and obtain new resources. I typically meet with individuals for an hour in their apartments. If meeting in the apartment is inconvenient, I can also reserve a confidential room on campus.

May is Mental Health Awareness month – have you engaged in any specific activities this month that are tied to this effort?

Greta: Yes! Last week, I gave a presentation about these new counseling services to residents at Goodwin House Alexandria and The View Alexandria. As part of the presentation, there was a handout of tips to boost mental health, which included simple practices that one can engage in. Things such as engaging in physical activities that you enjoy and connecting with a loved one or spending time with a furry friend really make a difference.

What do you see is the biggest mental health concern among the older adults you serve?

Greta: One of the universal challenges is adjusting to change, and there are a lot of transitions that can take place in late adulthood. These include changes with retirement, housing arrangements, aging and physical health. Sometimes this list is compounded by additional feelings that one is alone in navigating this chapter of life. It can be difficult to remain in connection with others due to role shifts in relationships, the loss of relationships and changes in communication abilities.

For some older adults, openly discussing mental health is a relatively new concept. Talking openly about it might feel more uncomfortable or less natural than to younger generations. Can you share your perspective on why this is so?

Greta: Many of us have been raised with messages that suggest it’s inappropriate to talk about things that are bothering us or that we need to keep a stiff upper lip. In living out these messages, we become more concerned with what other people possibly think of us instead of what we are actually experiencing and what we may need to achieve well-being. Additionally, there are specific misconceptions about the emotional needs of older adults (e.g., ‘it’s common to be depressed when you are older’ and ‘older adults cannot benefit from therapy’) that can prevent someone from seeking treatment.

My role as a mental health professional is to normalize the importance of attending to mental health needs and to provide education regarding ways to support emotional well-being, while also challenging the misconceptions that are out there.

Do you think we’re becoming more aware and accepting of mental health issues as a society?

Greta: Yes, and there are different contributing factors and examples that support this. Sharing personal experiences and asking for help have become increasingly normalized. This has partly been attributed to more celebrities publicly announcing their struggles with mental illness on talk shows, and the general public sharing insights gained from therapy sessions on social media.

The pandemic has additionally contributed to making it more socially acceptable to talk about mental health since it was widely recognized as a challenging time for all. There are also more programs being promoted at schools, college campuses and places of employment to support our emotional needs. These include preventative stress-reducing activities (e.g., meditation sessions), training (such as those that promote psychological safety), as well as direct care services. It’s rare to attend an orientation with a new organization today that does not advertise counseling services and hotline support within their handbooks or benefits packages.

We are seeing more organizations offering training programs to staff to better meet the emotional needs of consumers as well. An example of this is the training programs being offered to our first responders so they can better identify and support someone experiencing a mental crisis in the community.
In particular, Fairfax County has a partnership with the Fairfax County Community Service Board where first responders receive education related to mental health issues and are sometimes accompanied by a clinician when they respond to emergency calls. Amusement parks and airline companies are among the list of other industries that have similar sensitivity training programs to prepare staff to better attend to the emotional needs of those they serve.

At the legislative level, there have been major strides to expand insurance coverage, making mental health services more affordable and therefore accessible to a wider audience. The 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) leveled the playing field by putting mental health services on par with medical services. With this federal legislative act, insurance companies are required to cover services for mental health and substance use disorders in a way that is comparable to general medical coverage.

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), expanded health insurance coverage, making mental health and substance use treatment (among other health services) more affordable for individuals, families and small business owners. The 2021 Mental Health Improvement Act most recently expanded coverage for counselors’ services (such as myself) under Medicare.
We have come a long way in our understanding and views regarding mental health. However, we still have a ways to go to break the stigma that persists and to make it easier to afford and access care. To find out ways to get involved, readers can visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website: www.nami.org. NAMI is the largest grassroots mental health organization in the United States.”

How do we all benefit from gaining better awareness of mental health?

Greta: Mental health is related to a longer life duration as well as an increased quality of life. There is a lot of great research supporting the notion that what happens to us physically impacts our mental health and conversely what happens to our mental health impacts our physical health. By attending to our mental health, we are also likely to experience improved stress management and better interpersonal connections.

 

What tips do you have for older adults as they seek to tend to their mental health?

Greta: Attending to our mental health can take many forms. Since mental health and physical health are so interconnected, it’s good to ensure you are getting a good night’s sleep, eating nutritious foods and exercising. It’s also beneficial to socialize, engage in new activities and laugh, as these activities are related to the release of neurotransmitters that boost our mood. Stress management is another useful component of mental health. It’s therefore advantageous to allow yourself breaks and to feel comfortable delegating or asking for assistance with tasks.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is a great resource for more information. If you would like additional professional supports such as psychotherapy and/or medications, don’t hesitate to let your healthcare provider know what you are experiencing.

Thank you, Greta!

____________________________

Nada Boris, Marketing & Communications Coordinator, joined Goodwin Living in February, 2023.  She enjoys learning about the lives of residents and wishes to be like them when she grows up.

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