Masked Parent and Child

COVID-19 AND THE MENTAL HEALTH OF FAMILIES: What You Need to Know

I am in the field of maternal mental health, which means that I have the skills and tools to stay healthy and well. But you see, no mother- no parent- is immune to the undeniable pressures that have come with COVID 19.

Let me start with the basics.  I am a married woman and mother with two girls ages 11 and 14.  I am educated and partnered and supported in my community. I am healthy and resourced. I exercise regularly.  I get out into nature. I eat well. I meditate every day. I prioritize sleep. You know… blah blah blah.  And… this pandemic has thrown me for a serious loop.  Like nearly every other mother out there, I have been consumed by disappointment and grief, I have found myself swallowed up in relationship conflict with my husband, my daughters, my friends, my family, and, well, even my dog.  And, I am in the field of maternal mental health, which means that I have the skills and tools to stay healthy and well.  But you see, no mother- no parent- is immune to the undeniable pressures that have come with COVID 19.  Even those of us with the best intentions will be impacted by the stress and pressure of this year.

Since the pandemic started in March 2020, more than 2 million women have been forced out of the workplace due to job loss or the need to care for children. 49% women and children and 40% men report depression and anxiety, communities of color being disproportionately affected. Depression and anxiety in teens have increased significantly with suicide rates exceptionally high. I don’t intend to scare you, but the reality is that this pandemic is taking our mental health with it.  The point is, we need to be paying attention.

Life, as a parent, is already challenging- with all of the love and joy and excitementand fulfillment is also the heartbreak and worry and uncertainty and frustration.  And when you add a pandemic with school closures and losses and illnesses and loneliness, there comes with it a whole host of mental health challenges like depression and anxiety and substance abuse.

Here is what we are seeing at The Postpartum Wellness Center/Boulder: Women who were already at risk for developing depression or anxiety during pregnancy and postpartum are really suffering.  Women who might not have had postpartum depression and anxiety are, in fact, struggling with these issues when they may not have if they weren’t birthing or parenting a baby during a pandemic.  And mothers and fathers of children any age are suddenly finding themselves in a situation where they feel more overwhelmed, anxious, fearful, angry, and confused than they ever had before.

What this all means? YOU ARE NOT ALONE

This also means that we need, as communities, to increase the support for women and families so that parents have the support that is needed to make it through this critical time.  Untreated and under-supported parental depression and anxiety puts children at risk for emotional, behavioral, and developmental challenges themselves…. Luckily, we are having important conversations about increased support for kids growing up in this pandemic, but we also need to make sure that the mental health of parents is well tended to and supported.

The mental health of parents matters.

When we look at mental health, it’s important to consider it from a biological (physical and brain health), psychological (beliefs and thoughts), and social (connections and relationships) perspective.  Healthy humans have enough support in these areas ,and humans who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges are depleted in one or more of these components of wellbeing.  And, likely, those of you reading this are depleted pretty significantly in a number of these.  For example:

Biological Health: your sleep might be suffering, you aren’t eating very well, you aren’t exercising as much as you are used to, etc.

Psychological Health: you are focused on the things that are not in your control like the course of the pandemic, the political landscape at the moment, your children’s emotional impact from school closures and other disappointments.  Though, of course, you are trying to and want desperately to control these things.  Your thoughts and beliefs about the world are more negative than they have been.

Social Health:you haven’t seen family in an incredibly long time, you are out of touch with friends and social networks, you are feeling pressure in your marriage or partnership and other relationships at home.

Sound familiar?  Is this you?

Welcome to being human.  During a pandemic.

But don’t wait to get support.  There is a rising mental health pandemic following this COVID pandemic, and so thinking through ways to take care of yourself right now is imperative.  When you are overwhelmed by childcare, work, finding a job, managing on-line school, and keeping you and your family fed and clothed, “self-care” can feel like a cruel joke and way out of your scope of possibility.  But let’s all reconsider this for a moment, because in order to maintain some level of resilience during this incredibly challenging time, we do need to take care of ourselves.  As the (often annoying) saying goes, as mothers- as parents- we need to “put our oxygen mask on first”.

So, if you have read this far, you must want to feel healthy.  Consider the following:

Biological health: add15 more minutes to your sleep each night, add more protein to your diet, go for a 5-10-minute walk outside each day, drink at least 1-litre of water a day, reduce your sugar or coffee or alcohol or all three.  Take a deep breath.

Psychological health: find a saying or mantra that you can believe that is hopeful and grounding.  Our bodies don’t know the difference between real and perceived threat so if we are telling ourselves that we can’t do it or that life is too hard then we will feel real bad emotionally.  Try “I am doing the best I can” or “I am ok right now” or “this is really hard, but I can do it.”

Social health: any form of connection will settle our nervous system. Petting a dog, smiling at a neighbor, hugging a friend, looking our child in the eye, and doing something kind for someone all count.

And, of course, if you are still struggling and are feeling depressed or anxious, please reach out for help.  Pregnant and new mothers and fathers can find support in their area by visiting www.postpartum.net.  Mental health services also available at https://www.denverhealth.org/services/behavioral-health/mental-health-services and private psychotherapists in your area can be found at https://www.zencare.co

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