Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mental Health and COVID-19

Where do I start? Words like "pandemic", "quarantine", and "social distancing" have become part of everyday language, especially within the last week. I'm not here to talk about statistics, lecture you about staying inside, or discuss the physical symptoms of the coronavirus ad nauseum - not because it's not a big deal, but because literally everyone is talking about it. The conversations are important - and overwhelming.

We live in a world where we're one scroll a way from scary headlines and latest news. On the upside, it's never been easier to stay informed and connected. The downside is wide spread - yet understandable - fixation. As a parent of a kiddo on the spectrum, I know fixation, though somewhat inevitable, is not healthy. So am I saying we should hide our heads in the sand and avoid what's going on? No, it's essential to be informed, especially where health and safety are concerned. But now that we're all stuck inside with exponentially inflating numbers buzzing around our heads like flies and every phone conversation circling back to one topic, let's not forget mental health. It's okay to extend social distancing to social media and to limit how much you allow into your brain. It's okay to take a break, read a book, focus on your work, and talk about literally anything else. It doesn't mean your not taking this seriously. Sometimes social media makes us feel guilty for disconnecting. I have to constantly remind myself not to take the bait - for my own sanity.

This pandemic is affecting all of us in some way - those in vulnerable groups the most. But it's not just affecting us physically. No matter who you are, you're likely experiencing isolation, cabin fever, anxiety, and disruption in your normal routine. This is an adjustment for anyone. For those with underlying mental health conditions, current circumstances exacerbate already pervasive struggles. Anxiety sufferers, particularly those with germ-focused phobia, must deal with increased worry over getting sick, getting someone else sick, or a vulnerable loved one. Again, we are all dealing with these very appropriate worries. But, already present anxiety is that much more amplified. Although, if you prefer to be at home like me, certain anxieties (social) may actually be alleviated. On the other hand, if you're a small business owner or otherwise out of work, you are likely faced with financial uncertainty, especially given that none of us know how long we're in for.

Social distancing equals social isolation, especially for individuals like my mom, who live alone. Social isolation is depression's best friend. If you don't suffer from depression, this is a time to watch for it in yourself and those around you. Especially check in on those who live alone. Signs like lack of motivation, sleeping ore than usual, changes in appetite, and irritability (especially in children) can all be warning signs of depression. If you're a fellow depression warrior, now is the time to take extra care of yourself. If you rely on a routine that has been subsequently interrupted, create a new or modified routine. It might sound simple, but getting up and dressed and showered even when you won't be stepping foot outside your door may help retain some normalcy. While it's healthy to distance from social media, it's also important to keep connected. I've done this by participating in the live streaming of my church services, spending time coming up with new activities to do with my kids, enjoying rare moments to talk with my husband with fewer distractions (sports, a long commute to and from the office), and maintaining regular phone contact with my mom.

This isn't the time to put extra pressure on yourself. If you have a family and even if you don't extra chores will be created y people being home all day using dishes, taking things out, etcetera. If you have restless kids at home like I do, you may see an entirely new level of clutter. My ten year old was recently looking for his GoPro charger. He asked me where it was. I can't even keep track of my own stuff, so I told him to look in his room. Apparently, this ultimately fruitless search necessitated taking every book off his shelf and leaving it stranded on the floor. Well, at least he can keep himself busy cleaning his room. Spoiler alert: hasn't happened yet.

I got some great advice from my son's therapist. She encouraged me to avoid putting too much pressure on academics, instead focusing on mental health right now. I feel like this is good advice anyway, but with a first grader on the autism spectrum, I have to check my expectations. Though my older son is used to homeschooling, E is used to the structured environment of school. His day to day has changed - not ideal for someone on the spectrum. Fortunately, we have access to e learning and his teacher and aids have been great about filling his virtual subject folders. I've been employing the use of our visual schedule to intersperse school with free time, but I have to remember not to push it. In general, we all have this fear of falling behind. Maybe we can put that aside for now. Maybe we can take a lesson from all the chaos and learn to slow down, prioritizing our health and well-being. Now is not the time to introduce new material or stress about extra screen time.

As we navigate this new, uncertain terrain, we are inundated with reminders to practice proper hygiene and safeguard our physical health. let's remind ourselves to also focus on and safeguard our mental health too.

Please feel free to leave your own tips for mental healthcare, as well as ideas for helping those living alone feel connected, in the comments

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