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Prioritizing your family’s mental health during a pandemic, by Amy Kennedy
Pandemic Perspectives

Prioritizing your family’s mental health during a pandemic, by Amy Kennedy

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(The Press recently sought views on how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting daily health and wellness.)

Over the past two months, the nation has been focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19, testing protocols and stay-at-home orders. Now, as we all continue to adapt to a new normal and hunker down to flatten the curve, it’s time to prioritize mental health — our own and that of our children.

Sixty-three percent of respondents to a recent McKinsey survey reported feeling anxious or depressed in the past week, and suicide hotlines are already seeing an unsettling uptick in calls. As a longtime advocate, I want to ensure that families are taking mental health seriously. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you navigate uncharted waters.

Stress is transferred from parent to child

Right now, many parents are trying to keep things as normal as possible for their kids, which is commendable. But if we are overwhelmed trying to juggle multiple activities, homeschooling, work and meal prep, no one wins. Children absorb our moods and emotional responses. That’s why it’s important to try to alleviate stress where we can. Consider prioritizing daily tasks in order of importance, letting go of unrealistic expectations around cooking and cleaning, or posting a routine chart for kids. These are just a few examples of ways to lessen the load. Have a brainstorming session with a spouse, friend or loved one to come up with more.

Too much news is a bad thing

Any mental health professional will tell you that too much exposure to the news cycle during a crisis can be detrimental to your mental health. Of course, it is important to stay informed, but it might be helpful to set limits such as 45 minutes of online or TV news in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening — and cutting off exposure an hour before bedtime.

Familiar is OK

Our children are going through some pretty big changes. Now is not the time to create more. If they want to eat mac and cheese every day or hear the same bedtime story each night, consider letting it slide. Their usual comforts can go a long way in helping them adjust during this difficult time.

Conversations matter

This is a great time to talk to your kids about what’s worrying them. As parents, our natural inclination is to fix things. But now, more than ever, we must remember to listen first. Once you really know how your child is feeling, ask questions and offer guidance.

Kids really need social engagement

Our inability to socialize is a huge loss at a really formative time in our children’s development. Although it’s sometimes difficult to wrangle kids for video chats with friends or family, even 10 minutes can make a difference. To keep their attention, ask loved ones to prepare a few jokes or play a simple game. But remember, even though technology is a big help during this pandemic, too much time spent on social media can be harmful. Engaging on a video chat is far more beneficial than scrolling through Instagram.

Mental health concerns should be addressed

For children who are leaving their lives at school, and particularly for college students, a lack of control over their changing situation can trigger mental health concerns. During this time, we may see more youth exhibiting symptoms of depression, anxiety and other conditions. If you notice that your child seems to be withdrawing and spending more time in his or her room — or is experiencing frequent stomach aches and fatigue — make sure to check in. These are often signs of mental health struggles, and they should not be ignored. Mental Health America and Child Mind Institute provide great resources for parents.

Outside help is still available

Many mental health professionals are now using telehealth services to connect with patients. But before you reach out to anyone, call the phone number on the back of your insurance card to ask about mental health coverage during the pandemic. Your insurer may have certain policies and procedures you need to adhere to. Your primary care doctor can also help to point you in the right direction.

We will get through this

Some days, it’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but I promise you it’s there. Mental health professionals often say the most rewarding part of their job is witnessing human resiliency. Our ability to overcome obstacles is a remarkable thing. Trust the process. And remember — life doesn’t get easier, we get stronger.

Amy Kennedy, of Brigantine, is education director for the Kennedy Forum and a board member of mental health policy organizations. A former teacher, she is the wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd Congressional District.

Tomorrow: Telemedicine and remote monitoring have helped us navigate the pandemic. They’re not going away.

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