Now is no time to forget about our mental health

by PsyD & Hannah Nixon
March 26, 2020 1:00 AM

This morning my husband and I informed our 5-year-old daughter that we were taking a break from school and visiting friends in order to avoid spreading germs. We used the term coronavirus because I know she will hear this name a lot over the next few months. My daughter quickly connected the dots and, with tear-filled eyes, asked if she would get to see her “Mama and Papa” (aka grandparents). My heart sank and I held her while she cried.

To my child, her world was crumbling. Likewise, many adults and children are emotionally struggling with this recent change in society. Although I will choose to follow the Centers for Disease Control guidelines, this article is not to impose my current lifestyle changes upon you. Whether you are willfully isolating, being forced to isolate, or attempting to live out your normal routine, many businesses, schools, and events are shutting down thereby creating a substantial shift in day-to-day life. This shift, whether you agree with it or not, poses a great threat to our society members’ collective mental health.

It is no surprise that personal and family stress can destabilize one’s mental health functioning. Some businesses are forced to reduce staff while some individuals are leaving their vocations due to lack of child care, thereby creating an unanticipated loss of income and a potential shift in family dynamics. If financial stress isn’t enough, there is always the fear of one’s personal or family members’ health to escalate anxiety.

The natural uncertainty of a pandemic’s longevity provides a platform for catastrophic and “What if … ?” thinking styles. Although these thoughts and questions at their core serve some purpose for survival, they largely leave us feeling vastly out of control. Then add in social isolation, disruption of routine, compounded by the typical day-to-day life stress, and we have a breeding ground for depression, anxiety, and host of other mental health issues.

In practice, I primarily perform neuropsychological assessment with children and adolescents. To my clients and their families, I talk about how behavioral activation, consistency in daily routine, social connection, and help-seeking can bolster mental health functioning. However, how do I preach this advice when these recommendations have suddenly become so complicated to put into practice? I hope everyone can find at least some benefit from the following recommendations.

Create specific goals. Most individuals feel more fulfilled when taking steps toward some objective or project. For many, goals/requirements are naturally created in their work or school environment. Athletic-based ambitions and community driven gatherings can also fulfill this desire. However, with forced school closures, vocational termination, and closures of sporting events/gyms, many may find themselves feeling lost.

My uncle reminds me that Sir Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity during his isolation from the Bubonic Plague. I just recently googled how to build a raised garden box. Although far less ambitious than Sir Isaac Newton, I will consider my goal reached even if I should cultivate a row of weeds.

Create routine. Although some of us may fantasize about vacations where we wake up and “do whatever we feel like,” this lack of routine may create stress for you or your family over time. Most children and adults tend to perform better when they have a general idea about how the day or week will play out. I will not begin to spell out what your day should look like, but I suggest you get out your old-fashioned pen and calendar and start jotting down some plans.

Connect with others. This suggestion is likely going to be one of the most difficult recommendations to put into practice, given the proposed guidelines for physical distancing. As humans, we are driven to be in relationship with one another. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to the detrimental effects of social isolation given their developmentally appropriate transition towards increasing connections with their peers.

If the means are available, talking to family or friends via video chat is one option. If you have a spouse or roommate, this is your opportunity for in-home date nights, board games, or to start that series you’ve always wanted to watch. For children, it could be helpful to set up additional social outlets such as letter writing, making gifts for friends, or special projects. In our house, “Mama and Papa” have quickly acquired talents of painting and hiding rocks around our property. These scavenger hunts provide not only physical activity, but also an opportunity to feel connected with outside family members.

Focus on what can be controlled. As my good friend Olaf from “Frozen II” states, “We’re calling this controlling what you can when things feel out of control.” Do not fall for the fallacy that you can control your neighbors’ social activities. You may not be able to control perspectives on social media, but you can control your own actions. You can control your schedule. You can control your short-term goals. You can control how you communicate with family members. You may be able to control some of your close family members’ actions, but proceed with caution.

Ask for help when needed. Idaho is one of the highest-ranking states for suicide completions. We are a geographical area stricken with high rates of mental illness and few mental health resources. Take daily inventory of any significant alterations in mood or behavior within yourself or others. Signs of deterioration may include increased physical ailments or changes in sleep and appetite. If you are a high energy person who has stopped working out, this change may be your warning sign. Now is not the time to be ashamed of seeking help from a friend or a professional mental health provider. This is the time to reach one hand up for support and reach one hand down to offer what you can.

Today I took that same teary-eyed 5-year-old on a hike around Tubbs Hill. She searched for wildflowers, talked nonstop about her favorite princesses, and held my hand tightly. On the drive home, she nonchalantly stated, “I’m still sad, but I had SO much fun.” I’m glad I had my sunglasses on as I responded, “Me too sweetie.”

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Hannah Nixon, PsyD, works at Big Lake Psychological Services in Coeur d’Alene.