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As we mark Mental Health Awareness month in May, we find ourselves amid a time of unprecedented challenges for our mental and emotional wellbeing. According to the CDC, more than 42 percent of Americans surveyed in December reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, a 200 percent increase since 2019.

Moreover, the deaths of more than 575,000 Americans from COVID have left behind millions of grieving friends and relatives. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers struggle with stress, trauma and sadness over the patients they were unable to save. Young people mourn the loss of long-awaited rites of passage and many students have not attended full-time, in-person school for more than a year. For many, the current challenges exacerbate long-standing mental health issues.

Yolanda Harper, LCSW

“There is a collective trauma that we are experiencing with COVID and that stirs up unresolved trauma from our pasts,” says Yolanda Harper, LCSW, the executive director of Harper Therapy in Tampa. “With the intensity of the past year and the changes in our routines, it is hard to push back memories of past trauma.”

When helping clients dealing with trauma, PTSD, anxiety and other mental health issues, Harper often employs Accelerated Resolution Therapy or ART, an evidence-based therapy that enables people to recode troubling memories so that they no long summon unpleasant physical or emotional sensations. Harper is a master ART clinician who has trained many other therapists in the technique. She has also collaborated on numerous research projects demonstrating the efficacy of ART.

Most recently, Harper has been leading clients in two-day intensive therapy in which they undergo ART, as well as other types of therapies. Harper has worked with several intensive retreat programs for veterans dealing with trauma and realized that several sequential days of therapy could provide dramatic results.

“I’ve found that the pandemic has made unresolved traumas bubble up for people,” said Harper. “Clients who are interested in this intensive format are seeking to go deeply quickly.”

Before an intensive session, Harper talks with a prospective client for about a half hour over the phone, mapping out the topics that the person wishes to address. She often recommends that clients stay in a hotel during the two days, even if they are local, in order to escape from their daily routines and focus on their wellbeing.

On the first day, Harper incorporates aspects of Brene Brown’s “Daring Way” to build courage and vulnerability. She also leads clients through an ART session, enabling them to address specific traumatic memories. Often, Harper’s therapy dogs accompany the client through the session, providing unconditional warmth and acceptance.

At the end of the first day, a colleague of Harper’s who is a massage therapist provides cranio-sacral massage, a therapy which enables people to unlock tension. “Then, they go back to their hotel and have a really great night of sleep,” she says.

The second day incorporates more talk therapy, another ART session and often time in nature. And, after the two days are over, Harper schedules a two-hour follow-up conversation in which to discuss any unresolved issues. Recent clients include people struggling with difficult childhoods, those dealing with marital challenges brought on by being cooped up together and a student grappling with the transition to college.

The intensive sessions “really provide the time and space for my client and I to go deeper,” says Harper. “It’s the difference between weeding the garden and pulling up the tops of weeds or really digging them out by the root. Spending two days together really helps me get to the root of my clients’ traumas.”