COVID-19 shut down the world in 2020 and continues to affect the way we live and work. In the earliest days of the shutdown, hospitals were overrun, and most public schools closed. We became a nation of shut-ins, trying to figure out how to cope with a new and alien reality. People proudly displayed photos of their burgeoning baking skills and newly adopted pets.
What happened at Jewish Family Services is a point of pride for Anne David, director of clinical services. The agency is based at 1300 N. Jackson St., Milwaukee.
Jewish Family Services quickly put together a policy that provided clinicians with a framework for providing telehealth care that was safe, secure and confidential.
“Our therapists never missed a day. One day they were in the office and the next they were home, providing telehealth services. No therapist took a day off,” she said. “It really reflects our team’s dedication to our clients and this work.”
The work not only didn’t stop, it increased by 25 percent. In the year prior to the pandemic, JFS therapists conducted 7,800 sessions; that number increased to 9,800 in 2020.
Clients sought help dealing with grief, loss and the effects of social isolation and pressures associated with unemployment and financial concerns. People were also reacting to what was happening around escalating incidents of racism and anti-Semitism as well as issues relating to the 2020 election and its aftermath.
One thing David also noted was a recurrence of grief from losses that occurred prior to the pandemic.
“It could be someone they lost two or three years ago or a decade ago,” she said, “it was a grieving process that was unexpected.”
Although clinicians have been back in the office since April, the spike in sessions has not slowed down. JFS saw a three-fold increase in services to domestic violence survivors – from 1,140 hours of service between April 2019 and March 2020 to 3,250 hours during the same time span in 2020-2021. Because social isolation and household stress are risk factors that can cause domestic violence to occur and escalate, home became increasingly dangerous when school and workplaces closed.
Everyone suffered. Children and teens were isolated from peers and the social connections that come from simply attending school. For older adults, the isolation was even more severe because of their higher risk for the disease. JFS implemented a Friendly Caller program for older adults, one response that helped address the isolation.
Black families, David said, were hardest hit by the economic impact of the pandemic. Added to that challenge were the issues of racial injustice that surfaced, most prominently George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed. Black parents had to balance supervising school-age children and managing employment responsibilities while responding to their children’s – and their own – reactions and responses to racism.
Jewish clients were also expressing fear and insecurity in the wake of the 2020 election and events of Jan. 6. David said that Hillel Milwaukee students were offered supportive services through JFS. They reported that the political atmosphere, along with antisemitic imagery and rhetoric were more stressful than the pandemic and remote learning.
At the same time, the therapists supporting their existing and new clients through this range of challenges were coping with their own pandemic-generated stressors and losses.
One of those losses was their beloved longtime colleague, Dr. Michael Luber, who died in May of 2020. Luber had been instrumental in ensuring that his colleagues had a safe place to address their own issues. Lunch hours were open and available for individuals who needed them.
“Mike orchestrated the lunch meetings and provided a lot of consistency early on,” David said. “And from week one (of working from home) we had a lunch hour meeting via Zoom where therapists could connect, get important updates and share how telehealth was going.”
Once they got through the initial adjustment, David said, staff members said it was comforting to be able to take a walk or spend time with family members between sessions. Now, she said, they’re adjusting to being back in the office, although they’re doing a combination of telehealth and in-person sessions there.
Returning to the office is one adjustment David didn’t have to make. For her, it’s been adjusting to having everyone back in the building.
“I was always coming in because our psychiatrist continued to provide services in person,” she said. “But it’s been a joy to see people reconnect as therapists have returned to the office.”