How the pandemic has affected our mental health, social lives, and our nerves.
It has been a year since our lives were turned upside down by a global pandemic. We have experienced abundant changes these past 12 months, some easier to contend with than others. Some changes have been good—more family time, slower pace of life, or extra time to discover a new hobby. But the vast majority of change has been less than desirable. In addition to the physical health struggles and deaths families have faced, there has been a drastic spike in the mental health needs that people have experienced due to isolation, work-life balance (or lack thereof), the difficulties of virtual schooling, limited access to extracurricular activities, and overall heightened senses of fear, worry, and anxiety.
Many were prepared for a few months of quarantine. A year later we are still left wondering, when will this end? As we reflect on the events of this past year, it would be a disservice to dismiss the lessons learned about the need for socialization and the impact lack of social interaction has had on the mental health of all age groups and demographics.
Many parents have been left wondering about the lasting impacts this pandemic will have on their children and the trajectory of their future. Local mother Sarah Hughes and her husband feel as though they have been holding their breath for the past year. Sarah is a hospice nurse and her husband is an EMT. As front line workers, they have risked exposure to themselves and their children, but have also witnessed the tragedy of illness and loss of life. Amidst the heartache and demands of their jobs, Hughes and her husband try to fill their home with as much joy as possible. “There are definitely times where we feel trapped knowing that working in high-risk environments we could potentially contract the virus and spread it to our family. Needless to say we are very much looking forward to the end of the pandemic.”
Tori Kovarik, another local mom, was thrilled to see the progress her preschooler was making last year. “She would wake up every day so excited to go to school and see her friends.” But when COVID hit, Kovarik says her child was devastated and couldn’t understand why she could no longer go to school or see her friends. Kovarik started noticing some behavior regressions, sadness, and an attitude shift in her child. Like many, she felt a sense of helplessness with how to help her child navigate these changes. One thing that has been beneficial for Kovarik throughout this year has been her weekly therapy sessions. Now she looks forward to her Saturday telehealth sessions, working through the struggles her family has been facing with her therapist. “Sometimes it feels like I live for these sessions,” she says.
Risks at Home and Work
Hannah Butta and Kristin Roberts Norris are both nurses and moms pulling double duty this pandemic. Norris turned from provider to patient when she contracted COVID-19. While she was concerned for her health and well being, she was even more concerned about the turmoil it was causing her children. “They were scared,” she says. “They kept asking me, ‘Mommy are you going to be ok?’ I kept telling them that I was doing my job going to the hospital to get better, and they needed to do their job by focusing on school.” Norris is now home recovering, and is grateful for the assistance of her children’s school and teachers who rallied around them while she was in the hospital.
Butta says when the pandemic first hit she was extremely concerned for the safety of her family given the nature of her work. For six weeks she sent her husband and her children to live with her in-laws in an effort to shield them from exposure. It was a difficult choice, but Butta was willing to sacrifice her time with her family to ensure that they stayed safe and protected. Her family is back together now and has found ways of adjusting to their individual needs. While her fifth grader was doing well with virtual learning, her second grader was struggling and needed additional support that could only be provided in an in-person setting. This was no easy decision, but with small class sizes and proper precautions, Hannah feels it was the best choice to send her younger child back to in-person learning.
Mental health professionals are urging parents and children to seek outside help in dealing with the continued strains of pandemic life. Carrie Cleveland, LCSW-C, a provider at Waypoint Wellness, says as a mom she’s made certain exceptions that she wouldn’t usually allow such as a dramatic increase in screen time. “I have allowed more screen time because that is how kids connect right now,” she says. While she too is hopeful that things will soon be getting better, she expresses concerns for the pandemic’s long-term effects, especially on teens. “Teenagers developmentally are supposed to cling to their peers and they have been forced to stay home. It is such a developmental shift that I think may have long lasting effects.”
Art therapist Elizabeth Hlavek encourages parents to help their kids maintain as much normalcy as possible. She also recommends continuing validating their emotions, letting them know that this is a challenging time. Praising children for their adaptability and talking with them about their struggles helps them to feel heard and know that they are not alone.
Dr. Sara Pula, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, seconds the idea that routines and consistency are integral aspects of a child’s mental health and emotional growth. During times of increased transitions and changes anxiety and depression can worsen. She cautions that we need to remain aware of the fact that even as schools begin to reopen and children find themselves back in the classrooms, change and transition will still be present.
Pula suggests that all of us understand the importance of building in mental health days at our own discretion as we continue to adapt to further disruptions and transitions. “We need to be as flexible and supportive as possible to help our children regain a sense of security and trust in their world.”
While parents are concerned about the wellbeing of their children, it is not only the children that are facing difficulties. Molly Harbour Hutto, owner of Annapolis Family Acupuncture, treats a variety of conditions including anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. “A lot of my patients came early in 2020 with heightened anxiety,” Hutto says. For many, anxiety remained, though for others it transformed into depression. “Parents of young kids seem to be particularly affected by the pandemic, as they do not easily get breaks between work and managing virtual school,” she says.
We have been stuck in a repetitive cycle this year, hoping for some shift or change that will help guide us back to pre-pandemic life. While a true return to normalcy may still be a ways off, there is hope. As we reflect on the past year, let us find comfort in knowing that we have come this far together and together we will continue to see it through.