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For a 25-year-old recent college graduate, Alejandra Aschittino-Rodriguez is quite comfortable discussing grief and death.

That's because at 17, she had her own brush with mortality and lived to tell about it. Just weeks after moving from Guatemala to Iowa to attend Grinnell College, she was clipped by a semitrailer truck while running near campus. Her knees badly bruised and head bleeding, she was rushed to a local emergency room for treatment. The injuries healed with time but her perspective on life forever changed.

"I wanted answers on why do we live? Why do we die?" Aschittino-Rodriguez said. "It really set my priorities in perspective."

The near-death experience steered her toward the mental health field as she became determined to help others cope with grief and find meaning in their lives. She earned bachelor's degrees in philosophy and psychology at Grinnell and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where she graduated in May with a master's degree in integrated behavioral health.

Now a therapist at Sonder Behavioral Health and Wellness in Minnetonka, Aschittino-Rodriguez is helping people deal with life-changing circumstances caused by a pandemic that has left nearly 600,000 Americans dead, millions jobless and many isolated from their loved ones. She's also working on her own time to help people of color process grief caused by job loss.

She has joined the profession at a critical moment. Adults nationwide have reported increased symptoms of depression and anxiety and therapists continue to scramble to meet high demand for both virtual and in-person counseling.

An American Psychological Association survey conducted last fall found nearly a third of psychologists reported seeing more patients since the pandemic began. About 40% said they felt burned out and 30% felt they could not keep up with their patients' treatment demands.

"What I hear from … counselors is they're just overwhelmed with the number of people," said Dr. Lynn Linde, chief knowledge and learning officer for the American Counseling Association. "The pandemic and the social unrest in this country has impacted everybody, and everybody is grieving in some way."

Grief has manifested in many ways this past year. Many lost loved ones to the virus. People mourned losing their jobs and the sense of identity they tied to them. Young Minnesotans grieved the loss of milestone moments such as prom, graduation and final games with sports teams.

Now that the worst of the pandemic may be over, some Americans are feeling fresh anxiety about whether to return to in-person work, remove their masks or send their kids back to school full time in the fall.

Aschittino-Rodriguez, who is taking both in-person and virtual appointments, said she encourages her clients to feel empowered by the choices they get to make. Just months ago, many of these choices were out of their hands.

"Every day, we have a series of choices we can make, regardless of how small that is," said Aschittino-Rodriguez, who's battled her own case of the pandemic blues.

This summer, Aschittino-Rodriguez plans to study a pressing mental health issue: grief caused by job loss. She will continue a telehealth group she started at the U, separate from her full-time therapy work, examining how this issue affects people of color. The group helps people develop coping strategies for the psychological and social impacts of unemployment.

The work is relevant to those who lost jobs during the pandemic and to new immigrants who are trying to find work. As an immigrant from Guatemala, Aschittino-Rodriguez said she understands the mixed feelings that come with leaving one's home country for the U.S. Immigrants may lose their professional titles if the degrees they earned in their home countries don't transfer here. They also lose their connections and proximity to friends and family.

"[The group] is a space to say, even though I have this amazing opportunity of living in the U.S. … and I have a chance at a better life, I still miss my old one," Aschittino-Rodriguez said. "When you're immigrating, it's almost very taboo to say that."

Her sister, Gabriela Rodriguez Wheelock, said the mental health field is a natural fit for Aschittino-Rodriguez, whom she described as "very sensitive" and always wanting to helping others.

"She sees the value in life," Rodriguez Wheelock said. "I think her heart is in the right place."

A new normal?

Amid this exceptionally difficult year, some silver linings have emerged in the mental health field. Because "we're all in this grief together," Aschittino-Rodriguez said people have become more willing to discuss their mental health.

Some of her clients have opened up to her much earlier than expected, she said. The idea of seeking professional help appears to have become less stigmatized.

"This has advanced the field maybe 10 years if not more because we're openly talking about it."

The rapid adoption of telehealth is likely to have a lasting impact on the profession, too. Therapists nationwide are pushing for it to become a permanent option, Linde said, noting it has made mental health care more accessible for high-risk groups.

Fiyyaz Karim, a resident faculty member in the U's integrated behavioral health master's degree program, was Aschittino-Rodriguez's adviser and mentor. He said he expects telehealth will continue to be in demand after the pandemic for individual and even group therapy.

Pandemic-related grief may also linger for years to come, Karim said.

"Grief is not something that we ever get over," he said. "I think there's going to be things that even ... years down the road may be triggers for our grief and loss."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth