by Leanne Loy and Laura Ritsche
The pandemic has changed a lot of things for people during the last two years, not least of all shining a very bright light on mental health. Jess Bakken, a therapist who has a practice in St. Joseph with the Sojourn Counseling Group, has had a firsthand account of this.
Bakken, who was a school counselor in Monticello for 12 years, opened her doors to clients back in April of 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Back then, she couldn’t have face-to-face appointments.
“I have an office in my home, and I do telehealth and zoom conferencing. I did that until we were able to see people,” Bakken said.
Once she was able to conduct in-person sessions, she started looking for an office and St. Joseph was the perfect place to do just that.
“Cory Ehlert, who has a building in St. Joseph, along with his wife, Julie, had some space available,” Bakken said. “They were just the most wonderful people to work with.” And today she continues to practice out of that office.
Much of Bakken’s approach in counseling is based off traditions her family has practiced for generations.
“I see my approach as a kitchen table,” Bakken said. “I feel like some of the best counseling happens around a kitchen table.”
She talks about how some of the most important things in life get brought up during dinner time, when the whole family is there, phones turned off and reflecting on their day. Anything from celebrations to struggles get discussed around a kitchen table and sometimes just talking it out is the best medicine.
Bakken knows this because it’s a practice her own family of seven still does today. She has a beautiful, blended family with her husband Ryan who also supports this tradition.
Bringing this idea to her clients helps make them feel welcomed and comfortable, and after two years of crisis, it’s something most people could use now.
Speaking of crisis, most people have been affected by what the world has been through in the last two years. Bakken helps shine a light on how to deal with what all people have been through.
“In regard to crisis,” Bakken said, “COVID, pandemic, high gas prices, food shortages, a loved one being sick, crisis clarifies. That is one good thing that comes from a crisis…we have a heightened awareness of the multi-facets of our well-being.”
Bakken said people have now gained an understanding that mental health is just as important as physical. When everyone had to be isolated from family members and friends and socializing was taken away from all, people really started to understand how important those things are in life.
“We can’t fully thrive even professionally if we are struggling in other areas of our lives,” she said.
But more than that is the fact that if and individual’s mental health is unwell, it ultimately takes a toll on physical health as well. It really is a combination of every facet of life that helps people to flourish.
So, what can a person do? Bakken offers some advice of a few things each person can do on their own to support their mental health.
She suggested taking mental breaks, finding some guided imagery and meditations to follow along with. There are many downloadable apps that help with this. Breathing is a big one. People may hear this a lot but there is a reason for it. When people are feeling anxious or stressed, they tend to either hold their breath in, or take small, sharp, little intakes of breath which do not provide our brains with enough oxygen. Slowing down and taking deep meaningful breaths is a great way to calm that anxious mind and help focus the brain in a healthier direction. Lastly, anyone can calm anxiety by simply accepting it. It sounds like the opposite of productive, she said, but when people try to stop those feelings from coming to the surface, it actually makes it worse. Taking a moment to allow your body to feel those sensations can actually make them gradually go away.
But what if those things don’t do the trick? When does a person know if it’s time to seek help? Bakken can help with that too.
“Some of the signs I look for when I think it’s time to reach out to a mental health professional,” Bakken said are, “constant or nearly constant anxiety. Anxiety that gets in the way of daily activities, your work, your social life, your marriage, your family, school. And being anxious about things that do not actually threaten you. And panic attacks, definitely.”
If you are unsure if it’s time to seek help, she said, you can talk with her about that too. She offers consultations where people can come in and talk about whether or not they should consider starting therapy.
“I want to always make my clients feel safe,” Bakken said. “It’s a privilege to earn a voice in someone’s life, it isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.”
If nothing else, the pandemic has really brought to life the importance of taking care of mental health. For more information or to schedule an appointment with Bakken, visit https://www.sojourncounselinggroup.com/about