Sandia LabNews

Q&A with Kelly Brooks: Survival and resilience in national crisis


Lab News: After the attacks on 9/11 and since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation faced and faces a long road to recovery. How do you define resilience amid national crises?

STAY ENGAGED — National tragedies, like 9/11 and COVID-19, impact our communities in immeasurable ways. “Staying physically engaged, mentally engaged and connecting with others are all things that build resiliency,” Sandia mental health counselor Kelly Brooks said. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Brooks)

Kelly: There are differences between survival and resiliency. A lot of people compare COVID-19 to 9/11, but 9/11 was a one-time incident, and this virus is an ongoing crisis. There’s no endpoint. After 9/11, the country was able to shift its way of being. Saying goodbye to family members at the gate and walking out on the tarmac feels outlandish to us now. 9/11 changed the world and how we travel and manage security.

COVID-19 is different because we all respond differently to it. There’s not a unified front like there was after 9/11. We have survived up to this point, but have we practiced resiliency? We do that by taking care of ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually. Resilient people also experience tragedy in deep, profound ways, but they have tools to help when those bumps come.

We are asking better questions. What does it mean to be in community? What does it mean to be you, as a person in this world? We like to think we’re resilient and that we made it, but that doesn’t mean you’re truly resilient. There’s nuance there.

Lab News: Resiliency can be especially difficult during hard times. In those cases, is there value in just surviving?

Kelly: Absolutely. We have an all-or-nothing mentality, like resiliency is good and just surviving is not good. But sometimes survival is all we can do, and that’s a good thing. Resiliency is a different piece. We need our basic needs met, which is survival, before we can practice resiliency.

Regardless of your situation, there is grief in COVID-19 because there is a loss in the systems in which we operated. It’s OK to grieve that. When we lose a loved one, we go through a grief process. COVID-19 is still grief — it’s the loss of how we lived. Many Sandians’ work is about understanding and getting to answers, but there are no answers in national crises, which also creates a lot of grief.

Lab News: What does it mean to experience grief nationally, like after 9/11 and during COVID-19?

Kelly: I like to think about how systems work within families, communities, neighborhoods, our country and the world. When you think about how these systems overlap each other and how they experience COVID-19 differently, it’s hard to see how we’re going to move forward as a country. When there’s the death of a loved one, everyone grieves differently because of their relationship with that person. Similarly, everyone experiences COVID-19 in a different way, so how they’re dealing with it varies a lot. It’s a complicated grief.

The systems will adjust, but I don’t know what those adjustments will look like. After 9/11, people felt a loss of security. We assumed we were safe, but now it felt like “this thing came into my house.” After 2001, we adjusted to a different sense of safety for ourselves, our communities and the larger community that is our country.

After 9/11, we showed both survival and resiliency. There was an outpouring of care and support for others and a sense of protection for others, and there was hope in that. We did not give up on who we were becoming. We can learn lessons from that: we all have a sense of resiliency in us, and we can come together as community to care for each other.

Lab News: What are practical ways that people can build resilience despite challenges?

Kelly: Focus on what you can control. You can control your physical being and how well you take care of yourself: sleeping, eating, exercise, when we do our work. If we’re working from home, we can control our physical space, and we should try to dedicate a space for work. Otherwise, you’re checking your email 24/7, and there’s not a lot of separation from work.

There’s a mental piece as well. Work is obviously engaging, but maybe we read a book or magazine that doesn’t relate to our work. Journaling is really important, even if you burn what you wrote. We should try to connect with other people and talk to them about things that have nothing to do with work.

Also, try to connect with the world around you. Can you clean the Bosque or pick up trash in your neighborhood? It’s important to connect with something greater than ourselves. Whether we do that through reading, prayer, mediation or being outside, finding space to meet our spiritual needs is really important.

Staying physically engaged, mentally engaged and connecting with others are all things that build resiliency.

Lab News: How does someone know that it is time to see a professional?

Kelly: Being a therapist, I will say that if you’re asking the question, it’s time to see someone. In those moments when you’re getting testy about things you weren’t testy about, if you’re struggling to be in community and have a light conversation when everything feels heavy, if you’re a little too snappy with your kids, a friend, colleague or partner, it’s time to see someone. It doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment. Some folks just need to have a one-hour conversation, and they’re feeling good. Giving air to what you’re thinking with someone who doesn’t know you personally can really, really help. A lot of people need a few times to talk to a person that is not a personal friend or family member to give air to what is happening.

Lab News: How has therapy changed since COVID-19 began?

Kelly: Before COVID, there were a handful of people who did tele-mental health, but some therapists insisted that therapy had to be done in person. While that may be preferred for some, tele-mental health is very effective.

I’m a big advocate of tele-mental health anyway because there are a lot of preconceived ideas about what therapy looks like. Tele-mental health removes many of the barriers that previously prevented people from seeking help. I think tele-mental health will be with us for the long haul.

We typically offer in-person services, but those are mostly on hold right now. Most of my sessions are on Team Meets.

Lab News: How can Sandians take advantage of counseling services?

Kelly: Call medical and make an appointment with the Employee Assistance Program. Once they have an appointment on our schedule, they can complete a questionnaire prior to meeting. If it’s an urgent or elevated situation, we work closely with Employee Health Services and refer to outside providers.

About Kelly Jackson Brooks

Kelly is a licensed mental health counselor in Employee Health Services at Sandia. She holds a Doctorate of Ministry with a focus on mental health from Claremont College and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and counseling from the University of New Mexico. She also holds a master’s degree in divinity from the United Theological Seminary. Prior to joining Sandia, Kelly owned a private practice working with children and families. She has provided counseling services for local nonprofits, like the Rape Crisis Center, New Mexico Aid Services, Saranam and Family Promise.