Parents are juggling working from home, homeschooling the kids, managing kids’ mental health, and trying to figure out their own during social distancing—and all of that adds up to an increase in negative feelings that can be breathtaking. Whether you’ve experienced challenges like depression and anxiety in the past or this situation is bringing feelings up for the first time, there are ways you can manage your mental health right now. Julie Morison, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist operating at HPA/LiveWell in Albany, and Sanam Hafeez, Ph.D., the founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C., share their tips on managing your feelings, getting professional help, and remembering the little things that can make you happier right now.
It’s normal to struggle with mental health (especially now!).
Your kids need to be homeschooled, you need to complete work projects from your kitchen table, you need to cook dinner for the eighth night this week, and another mom on social media has posted a perfect-looking snap of her homeschooling setup. Sound familiar? Dr. Morison and Dr. Hafeez point out that parents are facing completely new stressors right now, and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed—especially given that New York might be past the peak of infection, but we have no idea when this is going to end. Anticipatory anxiety is high. There can be guilt around not giving your kids or your job 100 percent of what they need.
One effective thing to do is remember you’re modeling balance for your kids, Dr. Morison says. If you need to hop on a Zoom conference call but your daughter needs help with a math problem, tell her you’ll tackle it together after your call.
“Show [your kids] they need to be resilient and try things independently,” Dr. Morison says. ”Say, ‘I’m in a meeting now, give [this a shot].’ Let kids have some responsibilities and feel okay about that. Give yourself permission to still be an employee.”
Create a schedule the whole family can follow so everyone knows where they need to be during the day, and prioritize your priorities.
Right now parents are also struggling with their normal reassurances—for their kids and for their own parents. When you’re the one who usually tells everyone else it’s going to be okay, and right now you don’t know if it will be, that can be very difficult, Morison says.
“Use the facts,” she says. “Be able to say, this is what I’m afraid of, but this is what I know. And the difference between possible and probable. Is it possible that you’ll get coronavirus? Yes. Is it probable?
“In the moments where you feel like you’re being taken over by emotions, access the facts,” she continues. “Do this with your kids. Talking to kids so that your best coping skills are shared with them is good. Speak to your anxiety, don’t avoid it.”
If you’re already coping with mental health challenges, continue with treatment.
Mental health professionals have seen an increase in patients experiencing anxiety, hopelessness, and depression, Dr. Morison says, because coronavirus has “attacked every aspect of our lives” and we don’t know what’s coming next. For parents who already live with depression and anxiety, she encourages continuing with treatment and medication.
“This is not the time to say you’re not going to the pharmacy to get your medication because it’s too risky,” she says. “It’s riskier to not fulfill prescriptions. Make sure the things you did before to manage your mental health, you do now as well.”
Dr. Hafeez discusses how negative feelings can snowball when parents worry about their children seeing their mental health symptoms.
“If you’re a parent with limited resources, multiple children, you are struggling financially, if you have propensity for mental health issues, all of that is coming to a head. Darker tendencies are emerging at this time,” she says. “When you have children and you have personal responsibilities, that takes on a whole new meaning. There’s guilt and pressure about what you might be exposing your children to, how you might feel that you’re not showing up to be the best parent you can.”
She encourages parents to try to take some pressure off themselves—every part of every day does not have to be perfect, and it’s okay to just do what you can. It’s okay to throw in a few hot dogs for dinner one night. It’s okay to not have the kids’ homework done on time one night. Letting go of that pressure while continuing with your treatment plan is the first step toward feeling a little better.
For parents who are vulnerable to feeling isolated and down, use the resources you already have, and reach out to others.
If you’ve lost your job, or have a child with special needs who needs extra support, or are worried for your elderly parents’ health, you might be more prone to feeling anxious, depressed, or hopeless.
“I think the first thing to recognize is that there’s going to be good days, there’s going to be bad, there’s moments where you’re going to see the silver lining. You have to be willing to do that dance,” Dr. Morison says.
And when you’re doing the dance, she adds, remember that you know more than you think you do if you need to support your child with special needs. You’ve likely picked up knowledge from watching occupational or physical therapy sessions that are hard to do over Zoom—use that knowledge to get creative and help keep your child on track with therapies. It won’t be the same at home as it would be with your child’s therapist, but it doesn’t have to be. Figure out a way to keep his progress moving forward.
For parents in other situations, Dr. Morison says, avoid isolation as much as possible. “In our county, suicide has gone up 40 percent in the last two weeks,” she says. “If you’re living alone or you’re living in a pressure cooker, make sure that you are reaching out to someone to stay connected.” And commiserating is important, but be careful to balance your influences, as only taking to people who are equally as distressed could speed up the spiral.
Dr. Hafeez advocates for parents to get outside now that it’s getting warmer, whether that’s into the backyard, balcony, rooftop, or street. Steal happy moments like a sunny day, a family game night or a date night at home. And most importantly, try to carve out time to take care of your mental health. Connecting with a good telehealth mental health provider can be tricky especially because of insurance, but the governor’s office has 14,000 volunteer mental health professionals on call right now, Hafeez says. Talking with one is a way to get around going through insurance. Dr. Morison encourages parents to go through their primary physician to get a mental health provider referral, a person you can see in-person eventually. “Start with your primary care provider because they trust the people they’re recommending, and therapy is based in trust,” she says. “You don’t want to just search the Yellow Pages.”
Try to remember the little reasons to be happy.
This is an exceedingly difficult time to maintain mental health—but finding a little happiness in your day-to-day is possible, Dr. Hafeez says. Take stock of your reasons to feel grateful.
“The little things and moments are important,” she says. “As devastating as everything else is around us, there is something incredibly beautiful about getting to spend this much time in close quarters around your children and your loved ones.”
New York recognizes people are more prone to feeling depressed and anxious right now and has set up resources for anyone seeking emotional support. The New York emotional support helpline can be reached at 1-844-863-9314. The 24/7 support line open to frontline workers, which the state created in partnership with the Kate Spade New York Foundation and Crisis Text Line, can be reached by texting NYFRONTLINE to 741-741, and New York insurance providers have been directed to waive all copays for mental health services for frontline workers. You can head to the Headspace website for further support as well. Do not be afraid to reach out and talk to someone at any time. Your mental health—wherever it’s at right now—matters.
Author: Jacqueline Neber is an assistant editor and a graduate of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. When she’s not focused on writing special needs and education features, you can find her petting someone else’s dog.