Julie O’Donnell, Ph.D., is a psychologist and community mental health advocate with strong rural roots. She began her education with a degree in fashion design, following in her seamstress mother’s footsteps. Realizing a design career wasn’t necessarily useful in the area, she returned to college in St. Joseph, Missouri, followed by earning her master’s degree and Ph.D. at Texas Women’s University and then completing her residency in Nebraska. After five years of work at a community mental health center in Kansas and one year at Job Corps, she returned to Missouri as a psychologist at Live Well Community Health Center, which is owned and operated by the Health Care Collaborative (HCC) of Rural Missouri.
While she considers community mental health care her “wheelhouse” and where she feels most comfortable, she sees the strong intersect of mental health and substance use in rural areas. “I realized how many people in my family and in my community really dealt with mental health issues by using alcohol or substances and I realized there’s a big need for mental health care in a rural community.”
Dr. O’Donnell strongly urges those struggling with mental health issues, especially anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social issues, to avoid self-medicating with alcohol and other substances. She warns that while substances may dull symptoms or push them away for a while, “when they come back, they really come back.”
She is also a big proponent of following your breath and jokes that not everybody truly knows how to breathe. She advises people experiencing stress or an overwhelming situation to take time to allow breath to come up from the belly and to follow YouTube videos for guided breathing to relieve tension in the body.
While she strongly suggests speaking to a therapist if you are struggling, she also recommends a good friend. “I think we all need that one person who can tell us the truth.” Find someone who can give you “that little dose of reality” if you are panicking and need to be calmed down – even if it can’t be a family member. Other “tension busters” include taking a break to drink water or go for a walk.
While COVID-19 cases are climbing, Dr. O’Donnell emphasizes, “This is our new normal for now. It’s not our new normal forever.” She recommends following all CDC guidelines such as wearing a mask and washing hands frequently. She also advises easing anxiety by focusing on the things you can control and doing what you should to care for yourself during this time. “Things are going to get better. But in the meantime, it’s really important to do some good self-care.”
For those struggling with substance abuse in their family especially while staying at home, Dr. O’Donnell recommends having a careful conversation if someone is open to discussing their substance use. If you feel safe doing so, she recommends letting them know how their substance use affects loved ones. If there is a stigma in the family, “make sure you’re protecting yourself,” she warns. “That’s the hard conversation to have.” If they ask for assistance in enabling their behavior, such as asking for money, she proposes letting them know you love them but cannot contribute to their substance use. Dr. O’Donnell especially believes in reaching out to agencies like Alcoholics Anonymous and other resources. “It’s good to get fellowship from others going through the same thing and get support.”
Above all, she urges people to think about mental health from a new perspective. “I like to talk to people about mental health the same way we talk about physical health. If you fell off a tree and broke your ankle, you wouldn’t be embarrassed to go to a doctor for help.” She also warns that if there is something physical happening in the body, such as frequent stomachaches, it may be a sign of a bigger problem. “Our brains and our bodies aren’t two separate things — they’re connected.”
Dr. O’Donnell encourages anyone facing mental health issues to seek help. “It doesn’t mean you’re crazy,” she stresses, adding that even she has spoken to a psychologist when she felt she was in a rut. “Sometimes talking to somebody and getting it out into the room can help you see your problems in new light.”
While she advocates for people to seek professional guidance, she understands this is easier said than done, especially in rural communities. “I know there is a stigma, I grew up in a small town where that was very much true,” she says. “It’s a tough one in small communities like this to get over.”
Despite this stigma, she believes the recent shift in the psychiatry field to focus on recognizing trauma in children will help to break down barriers. According to Dr. O’Donnell, mental health professionals are connecting how children who grew up around substance use, incarcerated loved ones, abuse, and more are affected as adults including higher likelihood of smoking and substance use and a higher risk of diabetes, cancer, STIs, and early pregnancies.
“Hope is really what helps people improve their mental health,” she says of people in these situations, especially children and teens who may not be able to get out right now. “Without hope, we end up kind of getting stuck.” She stresses people’s power and control over their situation and to remember while they can’t change other people, they can change small parts of their lives now that can help them in big ways later. “Having hope helps us get out of that stuck spot.”