Unmasking Mental Health
Amidst an ongoing coronavirus pandemic is another crisis: a mental illness outbreak
A mask can protect you from the Coronavirus, it can also hide your face. The window into seeing how someone is doing mentally. Many people are suffering from the respiratory symptoms of COVID-19, but millions are suffering from a side effect of COVID-19: panic.
Diagnoses aside, the effect of COVID-19 takes a huge toll on those that need help with getting through life, even if they don’t have the sickness. According to family nurse practitioner Jenny Wilson has been on the frontlines of this crisis and says this pandemic stacks on top of the current mental health crisis in the United States.
“Unfortunately, we already have a pretty substantial mental crisis in the US, and then we’ve got a pandemic on top of it. So, not only is it, people who are already suffering before and not getting the help that they needed but now,” Wilson said.
There are so many different variables that go into the impact of COVID-19, as well as guidelines that are made to protect people, on someone’s mental wellbeing.
“We’ve got forced isolation and social isolation. On top of it, people have loved ones pass away, and not being able to say goodbye to them, because you’re not allowed in the hospital to say goodbye unless you can prove you have a negative COVID test,” Wilson said.
The statistics cause some parents to be fearful of taking their children to their doctors or the struggle to maintain visits with professionals prevent those with pre-existing or new conditions to get the treatment they need to function.
“I’ve had a bunch of people diagnosed with chronic psychological illnesses, bipolar is probably the biggest one. They can’t follow up with their people, so they’re coming off their meds, then they go into mania episodes and it just spirals down,” Wilson said.
Over the last few months, mental health-related emergencies have risen 31 percent among children aged 12 to 17, according to the CDC. While Talkspace, a virtual therapy support company, has seen a 65 percent rise in clients, many of them dealing with coronavirus-related anxiety. Wilson has seen many cases of anxiety and depression manifesting into physical symptoms.
“I’ve actually had quite a few people coming in with chronic nausea and feeling like they’re on edge all the time. Unfortunately, anxiety and depression can manifest as physical symptoms. I had one person follow up with a therapist and when I called them they said that their nausea had gotten so much better,” Wilson said.
But, how can schools guide students through this wave of panic and confusion? The school’s behavior specialist Kalinda Dixon suggests another method of checking up on students beyond talking circles.
“Do one on one, as I do with other students, sometimes they don’t like talking circles or groups,” Dixon said.”One on ones are a more personal interaction, students feel more at ease and are more open to being vulnerable knowing that other people aren’t around… sometimes in a talk circle students feel like ‘everybody’s watching me. Judging me. I can’t show them who I am.’ Especially if they have anxiety, a one on one session would be more helpful.”
For junior Clara Kilen, a student who attends school in-person, feels our school has room to improve their accommodations for students.
“Although the school provides resources, I feel as though they could make them more readily available, like advertising the services counselors can provide,” Kilen said. “For me as a student, seminar mental health days are not effective in reducing stress, but rather take away students’ time to do homework, adding to my stress. It doesn’t spark helpful conversations regarding mental health.”
Junior Lauren Rohde, who had experienced extended quarantine due to contact tracing, agrees the school can be more accommodating to students who do not have control whether they are quarantined or not.
“I think going through quarantine isn’t that bad in itself, if you have attentive teachers. Sadly, I did have some of the teachers who never responded to me and I had an insane workload when I came back,” Rhode said. “I already have bad anxiety, but when I came back, I had daily breakdowns and had to be sent home from school because I was so stressed. It’s a new thing for all of us, but people mainly dread being quarantined because your grades drop and suddenly it’s like you missed a whole semester.”
Wilson adds to suggestions on how teachers can be more helpful to students, since most of the time they are with the students while the counselors are not. Most help occurs at a classroom level, when teachers begin to familiarize themselves with their students and can observe changes in their behavior.
“If they notice a change in grades or look like they’re more withdrawn, I would recommend checking up on them or maybe just send out an email offering to help, then they connect the student with the counselor. A lot of the time teachers are the middle ground. Even on Zoom, in a virtual classroom, keep an eye or ear out for any red flags,” Wilson said, “But, it does suck because so many teachers have many classes and are struggling through this time as well…I would say teachers reach out to other teachers or counselors and talk to somebody.”
Yet there is only so much a school can do in helping students’ mental health, since they can only offer resources or help during the school day. Wilson suggests if you are a friend of someone who is struggling or don’t know if they are, let them know you are here for them. It could be a text, a call, or even an unconventional method of communication like snail mail.
“If you have your friend’s address then legit mail them a card. Nothing makes somebody happier than opening up an envelope with a card,” Wilson said.
But, outside of these brick walls and friend circles, it’s up to students to be checked in on and remember you aren’t alone. Many students may feel a sense of impending doom, with contact tracing constantly breathing over their shoulders. Dixon has seen this trend and tells students not to “fortune tell.”
“Some students have come to me saying ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next’ or ‘I feel like something’s just going to happen’. But we can’t fortune tell, that’s what I call it. We have to stay in the now,” Dixon said.
Sometimes it is all about keeping it simple. Dixon had me perform a relaxation technique she uses for students who are overwhelmed about the future. She asked me to look up at the ceiling, where she projected a night sky and images, and say what I saw, and as I listed off the things: a moon, stars, a night sky. When I was done, she pointed out I didn’t put any labels on the things I saw. What was there was simply there, and in that is peace and balance.
Even though there are plenty of methods to cope, Wilson wants people to know there is no shame in turning to drugs prescribed by a doctor.
“People think there is a difference between cholesterol medication and anxiety medication, but there isn’t,” Wilson said.“You can do all the coping methods possible, sometimes it’s just a chemical imbalance that needs to be corrected with a prescription.”
But, at the end of the day the most important thing students can do is to speak up. It can be for friends you have concerns about or yourself. If you are emotional support for a friend and you need help with them, let a trusted adult know. Professionals like Dixon and Wilson have more resources to help the person if you feel you are in over your head. Through vocalizing your concerns it is the first step to get help navigating through the proper channels to a healthier lifestyle. It will help you realize you aren’t alone, because there is a community in this world aimed at helping people struggling with their mental health. Wilson wants students to remember it’s okay to be vulnerable, or to step down from the role of the “therapist friend”.
“Sometimes you don’t always need to be the big tree or rock,” Wilson said, “You can lean on other people, you don’t always have to be the one holding somebody up.”