On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus outbreak a pandemic — the first since the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, according to a CNN report.
Since then, life has changed for many Americans as schools and businesses have closed, citizens are urged to stay at home and calls for social distancing keeps friends and families apart. Uncertain times and the desire for regular life to resume can be overwhelming for everyone and could be detrimental to one’s mental wellbeing.
Children, especially those who are toddlers, sometimes lack the ability to communicate what they’re feeling for a number of reasons, such as being too young to talk or understand, or lacking the vocabulary to identify and have a conversation about their emotions.
Licensed psychologist and instructor at Appalachian State University Will Canu says that a child’s reaction largely varies based on their individual age, proximity to cases of COVID-19 and their interactions with adults regarding the pandemic.
“In other words, children in communities that only observe cases via the media will likely be less impacted than those whose communities have active cases, who will be less impacted than those with cases in their family or who contract the illness themselves,” Canu said.
Additionally, a child’s reaction greatly depends on the information they’ve collected and reactions that they see from the adults in their lives.
“Information, as well as answers to children’s questions, should be given in age-appropriate ways,” Canu said, adding that parents and caregivers “should convey that they will do everything they can to protect their children in a pandemic, and, of course, follow through on that.”
Reassuring children that their parents and caregivers will take care of them during uncertain times often leads to a decrease in the child’s anxiety. Canu says that sharing information about the pandemic with children can help to remind them that they are valued in their community and family.
In the wake of public school closures and athletic and social cancellations, children are facing dramatic schedule changes, especially if they’re in middle school or high school.
“One of the undeniable things about school is that most kids make and keep friends and get to interact with them on a regular basis there. While public schools and teachers will offer connection with the students online, a big part of that focus will be maintaining academic continuity, and it is unclear how well peer social interaction can be facilitated,” said Canu. “This is uncharted water.”
As a result, Canu wants to encourage caregivers “to be judicious in their restriction of access to (technology)” in regard to activities such as video games, social media, texting or face-to-face interactions from Google Hangout, Skype or Facetime.
“What I am suggesting is to remember ... that they probably did some of that before the pandemic, and likely need more of it now because of what they are missing in face-to-face time,” Canu said.
As for adults, some may have experienced emotions, stress or even past pandemics that have allowed them to cope better with aspects of life that have been altered by COVID-19. However, with an exponential increase in unemployment claims since the beginning of the pandemic, work closures and child care facility closures, this is an uncertain time for both young and experienced adults.
Denise Martz, licensed psychologist, health services provider and instructor at App State, said, “having no anxiety and treating this nonchalantly is dangerous,” but there’s a fine line that everyone has to learn to navigate as “too much anxiety and watching the news 24/7 can be debilitating for some people, psychologically.”
For families, Martz recommends making a schedule for both weekdays and weekends to relieve stress from adults and children who are struggling to grasp for control during the pandemic.
“Kids need predictability, and creating a schedule and laying out expectations gives kids that predictability,” Martz said. “Whether they’re small children, tweeners or in their teenage years, talk about expectations for everyone’s behavior and what the consequences will be so that you’re not putting out fires as they happen.”
Martz warns parents against big changes to their own schedules, such as sleeping in because “it can be unnerving to children — especially little kids who aren’t used to seeing their parents sleeping,” and she encourages adults who are feeling unrest and anxiety to reach out to other adults rather than sharing their fears with children or bottling them up.
Another useful coping mechanism for adults is called a repetitive writing intervention, aka “Worrytime Writing,” and it was developed by James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin. Martz added that not only has she practiced this herself, but she recommends it to clients.
“(Individual writers) take the most stressful things that have happened in our lives or traumatic events and that we deliberately write about these events for at least four days in a row,” Martz said. “It only takes 15-20 minutes to do this writing, and it’s key to write about the facts and especially the emotions — get those emotions out.”
From releasing these pent-up emotions from the past, a natural change occurs in the writer’s thought processes regarding aspects of life that are within their control and those that aren’t.
According to Martz, writers who practice a repetitive writing intervention “move from just venting emotions into (using) action verbs and actual problem-solving.”
The writing exercise allows practitioners to deliberately focus on the problem-solving aspect of the things individuals can control, rather than focusing on the emotions and stress that enforce a lack of control, Martz said.
Because of the role technology plays in our daily lives, there are countless resources online for those struggling with unrest during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Martz specifically recommends breathing techniques and a smartphone app called Calm, which focuses on several meditative techniques.
Support groups that focus on mental health have seen cancellations due to COVID-19, but several, including the NAMI High Country groups, are adapting to be available to those in need during the pandemic.
Mike Tanner, president of NAMI High Country, said in a statement, “This public health emergency reminds us that we are all in this together. We need each other’s support, and sometimes we even need to keep our distance for each other’s good. NAMI is here for the good of all people affected by mental health conditions. With you, we are working to continue helping as we face this emergency.”
NAMI services, including online discussion groups, specific groups for caregivers and additional resources, can be found at www.namihighcountry.org.
Additionally, community members who are interested in participating in a support group via teleconference should email Tanner at email@example.com.
The Watauga Center of Daymark Recovery Services opened for telehealth services on March 30.
The center Director Holly Robinson said, “Daymark is using Doxy.me, a confidential video conferencing platform, to provide telehealth services. This is available for anyone with a smartphone or laptop computer and internet access. The doctor or therapist will send a text message or email with a link to click on to connect” at the time of their appointment.
Crisis services from Daymark Recovery are available 24/7 by calling (877) 492-2785, and more information about available services can be found at www.daymarkrecovery.org.