Taking a Mental Health Break


Slowing down and finding coping strategies in a frenetic world

Imagine the carefully organized chaos of your typical day—the balancing act of commitments and loved ones, crossing off items on the never-ending-to-do list. Couple that with our increased connectedness to the world around us. Is it any wonder that all of these factors can make a person anxious?

But what if your anxiety doesn’t let up?

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), “one in four adults – approximately 57.7 million Americans – experience a mental health disorder in a given year.”

Although there is a biological component to mental health issues, some of the changes and feelings that impact people are situational (i.e., divorce, career change, coping with the loss of a loved one) and commonly involve issues like generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, general depression and adjustment disorders, according to Heather Geerts, LICSW and Clinical Director at Zumbro Valley Mental Health Center.

The good news? Many of these issues can be resolved through “short-term, brief interventional therapy,” says Geerts.

The bad news? Many times, women wait too long to address these issues.

“Be preemptive so it doesn’t spiral (into something more serious),” Geerts advises.

Stress: Not Just a Mind Game
Beyond the psychological strain that mental health issues can cause, anxiety, stress and depression can also wreak havoc on your physical wellbeing.

“When people are stressed, it impacts many other systems in their body,” explains Kathryn Amundson, Ph.D, LISCW at Associates in Psychiatry and Psychology. “We become more susceptible to illness because it affects our immune system. Excessive worry raises our cortisol (stress hormone) levels over longer periods of time causing more wear and tear on the body.”

Sometimes therapists see where past traumas are “stored” in the body, for example, recurring back pains when remembering a car crash.

“If we don’t attend to it in our mental health, our body tells the story in another way,” says Cindy Finch, MSW, LGSW at Highland Meadows Counseling Center, LLC.

It is important to address these issues before they become serious problems.

Overcoming the Stigma
“We’re here if you need us,” adds Finch. “You go to the doctor when you are sick; you talk to friends when you are lonely. Therapy is actually a way to take care of yourself.”

However, going to a therapist and seeking help takes a lot of trust and involves people traveling out of their comfort zone.

“Something I see as exceptionally important is to be educated [about mental health issues] so you know where to go, know what to do, and know how to navigate the mental health care system,” says Courtney Lawson, Executive Director of NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) Southeast Minnesota.

“Therapists are able to provide new techniques and a different way of looking at the situation. This frees up the person to utilize his/her own strengths to move forward,” Amundson adds. “People often overcome their trepidation of therapy when they find a therapist who takes the time to listen to them and provide an environment of acceptance, possibility for change, and hope.”

Consider seeking the advice of a mental health practitioner if you start displaying any of these symptoms:

  • Feelings of sadness/unhappiness
  • Irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  • Feelings of worthlessness/guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself when things aren’t going right
  • Changes in appetite (including decreased or increased appetite), unintended weight loss or increased food cravings or weight gain
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Agitation or restlessness (i.e., pacing, hand-wringing, inability to sit still);
  • Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
  • Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy (especially when small tasks require a lot of effort)
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, remembering things
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
  • Crying spells for no apparent reason
  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches


Expressing feelings in their own language Adolescent and child therapy

From play therapy to teaching adolescents coping skills to succeed in their daily lives, the modern world has many solutions for children who may grapple with mental health issues.

A lot of media attention is focused on adolescent mental health issues that require medication. But at Highland Meadows Counseling Center—where the majority of patients are 11-25 years old—a lot of issues that drive teenagers to seek help are problems that might be familiar to anyone who survived high school.

“One of the common issues is with social interactions, whether that be with their classmates or parents,” explains Amy Carey, MSW, LGSW.

“Or romantic relationships,” adds Cindy Finch, MSW, LGSW.

“There are a lot of teens who feel that they can’t keep up with their parents’ expectations,” says Mandy Hyland.

“Or society’s expectations,” Carey chimes in.

This causes anxiety.

While therapy serves as a sounding board for teenagers, there is also a teaching component. Sometimes, teenagers just need to hear advice and learn positive coping skills from someone other than their parents.

“I often say to parents, there are many things I’ll say to your child that you’ve said a thousand times, but they’ll listen to me because it’s not you,” explains Sarah Stelzner, MSW, LICSW.

Some of the negative coping skills that the therapists at Highland Meadows see from teenagers include self-harm, chemical abuse and engaging in dangerous relationships. “We look at how these coping skills work in the short term,” Stelzner says. “But what is the damage to them in the long term?”

These coping skills—thinking through a situation before reacting and replacing harmful behaviors with healthy ones—are building blocks that teenagers will be able to utilize in the future and in adulthood.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
What works for adolescents and adults when seeking therapy doesn’t necessarily work for younger children, so therapists have developed techniques to encourage communication and expression from children, such as play therapy, which is particularly helpful for ages 6-10.

“Play therapy is a special technique to assist young children in using what is their most effective means of communication, namely play,” explains Kathryn Amundson, Ph.D., LISCW with Associates in Psychiatry & Psychology. “Toys are the children’s ‘words.’ It allows children to release their feelings. Children are able to express their concerns through play.”

Some of the tools that may be used in this type of therapy include sand trays, art therapy, puppets and “mutual storytelling.” Play therapy is particularly useful for children who are going through divorce or to help them process a loss.

“It is important for children who do not have a language for grieving or loss,” says Amundson.

Another helpful “tool” that Amundson has in treating children (as well as adults) is her 9-year-old Samoyed named Lexi, a certified therapy dog and former champion show dog.

“With children and adolescents, we simply sit on the floor with Lexi between us, and it’s amazing how much easier it is to talk about difficult topics while petting the dog,” Amundson says.

One of the hardest aspects for parents seeking treatment for their children is the belief that it will reflect negatively on them as parents.

“The truth of the matter is that there are a multitude of influences that impact behavior,” says Geerts, listing environmental reasons, traumatic incidents that impact one child differently than it would another, etc. “It’s not just parenting. Is that a component? Absolutely.”

Helping a child or a teenager cope with mental health issues can also mean helping parents or caregivers cope as well. Sometimes, coping takes the form of reassuring parents that their families aren’t the only ones going through these problems. “Things happen in a lot of families,” Hyland adds. “A lot of what is happening in their child’s life happens to others.” NAMI Southeast Minnesota has specific workshops that are geared toward children and children’s mental health issues, such as Kidshops, for children ages 7-18 who have a parent or a sibling living with a mental illness.

Another workshop geared toward parents is Children’s Challenging Behaviors, which provides tools and coping strategies to help parents with their children’s behavior.


When to Seek Child or Adolescent Therapy
So how does a parent or caregiver differentiate common growing pains from something more serious? Consider the following behaviors:

  • Refusing to attend or declining performance in school
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Extreme irritability
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Acts of bullying or being bullied
  • Negative feelings about themselves
  • Extreme fearfulness or excessive worrying
  • Uncontrollable anger or outbursts
  • Obsessive dieting and exercising or overeating

Trust your gut. Parents know better than anyone what their child’s norm is and can see emerging patterns.

Source: Heather Geerts, Zumbro Valley Mental Health Center and Sarah Stelzner, Highland Meadows Counseling Center

Common Mental Health Issues

Depression (situational, seasonal)
Anxiety and stress (family issues, job insecurity, upcoming changes)
Life transitions (moving, new job, different school, retirement, health changes)
Relationship issues (stressed relationships, separation, divorce, remarriage)
Trauma/crises (PTSD , abuse, sudden losses)
Academic/school issues (academic struggles, bullying, friend conflicts)
Grief and loss (death of parents, grandparents, significant others)

Source: Kathryn Amundson, Associates in Psychiatry and Psychology


Kathryn “Katie” Amundson, Ph.D, LICSW
Associates in Psychiatry & Psychology

Sarah Stelzner, MS W, LICSW
Amy Carey, MS W, LGSW
Mandy Hyland, MS W, LICSW
Cindy Tri, MS W, LGSW, CPP
Cindy Finch, MS W, LGSW
Highland Meadows Counseling Center, LLC

Courtney Lawson, Executive Director
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Southeast Minnesota

Heather Geerts, LICSW
Zumbro Valley Mental Health Center