by Casey Newman

When you think of COVID-19, what comes to mind? You probably think of physical symptoms like cough, shortness of breath or fever, but there’s another side of COVID-19 that’s impacting families — depression and anxiety. 

Pandemic or no, parents have a lot to deal with. But add in a pandemic, and things can quickly become unmanageable. Researchers have found that parent — and child — mental health has taken a hit during COVID-19, especially during lockdown. 

Consider this: “Of all families, only 14% reported no hardships during the pandemic, while most had at least two,” reported the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

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The CDC points out that during the pandemic, you may experience

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones, your financial situation or job, or loss of support services you rely on
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Worsening of mental health conditions
  • Increased use of tobacco, and/or alcohol and other substances

And locally, professionals have seen an increase in mental health symptoms as well. Dr. Adriane Bennett, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Behavioral Medicine notes, 

“Many of the patients that I have been seeing for a while report an increase in symptom intensity, particularly anxiety.”

Research has shown that pregnant people and parents with young children are experiencing a three- to fivefold increase in depression and anxiety symptoms.

The uncertainty of everything plays a big role in the increase of mental health symptoms, Dr. Bennett said.

“Parents’ energy and emotional resources have been overloaded due to taking on multiple roles (work, homeschooling, tech support/troubleshooting, coach, cheerleader, and entertainment).”

If you’ve been juggling multiple roles, you might soon find yourself over-extended and experiencing burnout or depressive symptoms, she added.

“I think that perfectionism about what parents believe they ‘should’ be doing also leads to unrealistic expectations and pressure. I have been hearing a lot of unhelpful ‘toxic positivity’ beliefs that people are beating themselves up with; that if you try harder, do more, and think good thoughts then you will not experience the negative feelings,” she explained. “Unfortunately, ignoring the valid negative emotions and not acknowledging the increased stress level does not make it go away.

“I think social media contributes to the pressure,” she continued. “For those who are struggling, it can be difficult to challenge the messages that they ‘should’ learn a new language, take up a new hobby, learn a new instrument, clean out all of their closets, and catalog all of the old family photos during the pandemic. It’s OK to not be OK, focus on one day at a time, and set more balanced and realistic expectations.”

During this time of uncertainty, you can help protect your mental health by focusing on essential needs and trying to let go of perfectionism.

“Set up a realistic and consistent routine with boundaries between work and home activity,” Dr. Bennett said. “Practice self-compassion; we are often kinder to others than ourselves. What advice would you give a loved one in the same situation? Acknowledge the more challenging emotions and remind yourself of your resiliency. Get adequate nutrition and rest. Limit alcohol consumption. Do one activity for your own self-care per day (exercise, read, hobby). Get your own social support, even if it is virtual. Reach out for professional help if needed.” 

How do you know if you should seek professional help? Dr. Bennet notes that you should watch for:

  • Increased intensity of anxiety, depression, anger or mood swings 
  • Behavioral outbursts or uncontrolled anger 
  • Increased family conflict or domestic violence 
  • Suicidal or homicidal thoughts that are persistent 
  • Difficulty completing activities of daily living, work, or school tasks 
  • Unusual symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations 
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs

If you’d like to receive professional help but are having trouble locating resources, you can ask your primary care physician for a referral or look for therapists providing telehealth services.

“Since the pandemic began, there has been an expansion in telehealth, and they may be able to connect with a therapist who is not local but licensed to practice in their state. Finally, community mental health agencies are available to help regardless of ability to pay, such as Portage Path Behavioral Health or Coleman Professional Services,” she said. “The patient can directly reach out to a psychologist or psychiatrist to see if the practice is accepting new patients. They can also call the number on the back of their insurance card for behavioral health benefits and get a referral to an in-network provider who is taking new patients.”

Family members and friends can provide support if someone they love is struggling, too. 

“I think the biggest way to be supportive is to just listen, validate, and resist the urge to give unsolicited advice. Many people do not feel heard during the pandemic and may just want a sympathetic ear to vent to. Family and friends could also offer to take on tasks (babysitting, household chores, homework help) to help those who feel overwhelmed with multiple roles,” Dr. Bennett said.

It’s important to remember that we’re human, and humans are designed to feel emotions.

“Just like physical health, mental health is not all-or-nothing and can change throughout our lives and circumstances. We are all human and ‘wired’ to experience anxiety, sadness and anger. The best way to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health treatment is through education and open communication,” Dr. Bennett said.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of. If you’re in crisis, go to your nearest emergency room or call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Casey Newman is a mother of two from Green who depends on wine to get her through bathtime and bedtime. She is a maternal and women’s health advocate who volunteers with several birth and maternal rights organizations and has spoken to Congress members about issues affecting moms.

Photo: Dr. Adriane Bennett, used with permission from Cleveland Clinic Akron General Behavioral Medicine

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