The COVID-19 pandemic has left many of us feeling uncertain and uneasy about the future and is expected to have a significant worldwide mental health impact – one we cannot ignore. Valley View’s psychiatrist, Peter Wiley, MD, and the director of the Youth Recovery Center, Janeil Sowards, LPC, CAC-III, ATP, shared some tips on how to manage in these difficult times.
Q: How does social distancing and economic uncertainty impact mental health?
A: Because adults have a variety of life experiences, we can expect varying responses to the impact of COVID-19. Initially, social distancing and economic uncertainty can cause anxiety and fear, but the duration and the personal and professional impact will determine intensity. Obsessing about the “what ifs” can start as a semi-quiet concern in the back of your mind during the daytime and then grow to a blaring megaphone panic attack at 1 a.m. with increased anxiety and added sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep, one of the pitfalls of anxiety, makes problems bigger and scarier. Sleep helps our brains rationalize and stabilize. Generally, humans by nature are social beings who crave connection and physical touch and seek that act as a physical sign of caring and acceptance. Those with pre-existing medical or mental health issues may find social distancing and economic uncertainty more overwhelming.
Q: How should we talk to children about their mental health?
A: The number one way parents teach their children is by example. If a parent tells a child, “Don’t smoke” and then the parent smokes, children receive a confusing “do as I say, not do as I do” message. In most cases, children imitate their parents’ habits and coping styles. Regular practice of taking care of your mental health is, by example, the best teacher. Parents can model healthy coping by exercising, talking to friends and family, reading self-help books, eating healthy food, and seeking professional, individual and family counseling as needed. Secondly, talk to your child and tell him or her it is normal and healthy to feel emotions, it is ok to ask questions and that you will help find answers. Tell your child it is ok if he or she wants to talk to a professional and then facilitate a referral. Additionally, practice coping techniques as a family. Make sure your child knows you will be there and that you will get through this change together.
Regarding WHAT to tell children about the COVID-19 pandemic: If a child has questions about COVID-19 and our changing world, respond with age-appropriate answers using facts and supportive comments. For example, when a 3-year-old asks “where do babies come from?” a parent’s answer should be general and based on the child’s understanding of how babies are made. In comparison, when a 10- or 14-year-old asks the same question, that conversation should include more specifics followed by the parent’s matter-of-fact, calm reassurance that you will answer further questions at any time and are there for support. Keep in mind that parents cannot and should not ever make promises they cannot keep like, “I’ll always be here,” “I’m not going to leave you,” or “I will never let anyone hurt you.” Those are promises adults cannot keep. Instead, it’s more effective to use responses such as “tell me more about your concerns,” “let’s research the answers together,” and “what other questions do you have?” to validate your child’s feelings.
Q: How is the pandemic effecting the elderly?
A: Social isolation has intensified their feelings of being a burden to their families and their lives lacking meaning. This is compounded by their legitimate fear of serious illness or death from the virus. It’s more important now than ever to reach out to elderly family members, neighbors or friends to check in. This is a difficult time for them. Physically they are isolated and many may be uncomfortable with technology to stay connected virtually. The message is simple; if you have older adult or senior populations in your life reach out to them with a phone call.
Q: How can we support family, friends and neighbors who may be isolated alone?
A: During this time of physical distancing, there are still ways to connect with family, friends and neighbors. Take a meal and drop it off on a friend or neighbor’s doorstep. Talk to your neighbor over the fence, FaceTime, Zoom or the good, old-fashioned telephone call. Check on single, elderly family, friends and neighbors with a phone call. Isolation makes fear worse, so please check-in. When terrible things happen, there can sometimes be positive outcomes. One example is families reconnecting and bonding despite challenges with increased togetherness and homeschooling. This is a wonderful time to connect with neighbors who never speak to each other. The bottom line is, look for opportunities to safely connect.