Local residents discuss how COVID-19 pandemic has affected mental health

Reporter: Ellie Mahan

October 20, 2021

Four in ten American adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, an increase from the one in ten adults who reported these symptoms in 2019, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study. The stress adults feel can be reflected in their children’s mental health. Local counselors share tips on how to cope with additional worries and fears that families may be feeling as the presence of coronavirus persists.

Elizabeth Page, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional at The Oaks Counseling Center in Whitney, said she has noticed an increase in clients with anxiety. The therapist also works at a psychological hospital, and she said the number of patients checking in to the hospital with major depressive disorder are on the rise.

“We’ve never lived through anything like this before. It has revealed stressors that we didn’t realize were there. We didn’t realize how much we needed other people until we didn’t have them. We didn’t realize how much we needed our social activity: going out, doing family gatherings, seeing people at work, having sports, just going out to eat and enjoying a meal. We didn’t realize how much we needed that until we didn’t have it,” Page said.

Stephen Rehrig, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro, said he has noticed his congregation’s frustration with ongoing social distancing and isolation. Some church members are ready to return to normalcy while others are still hesitant. Overall, the pastor is impressed by the patience and flexibility he has seen in his church members.

“That has been the hard part. We’ve had to balance out with the congregation, the two sides, one that wants to be extra, extra cautious about things, and another one that wants to get on with life. We’ve been trying to keep those two forces in balance and in check with each other,” Pastor Rehrig said.

Rehrig is looking forward to when he can comfortably greet people with a hug at church on Sunday mornings.

“Isolation is definitely harmful. I believe we are communal beings. We need people. We are healthier when we are interacting with people, when we are around people, when we are embracing people. We need physical interaction with people. We can’t stand to have to be six feet away from everybody all the time. It’s just not who we are. I love to hug people on Sunday morning,” Rehrig said.

In some cases, the pandemic has led to job loss or uncertainty, which is associated with depression, anxiety and distress and could potentially lead to increased rates of substance abuse and suicide.

Page said she has seen a lot of addicts relapse during the pandemic, and she has also seen an increase in new addicts as well. To demonstrate why addicts relapse during times of stress, Page compared the pathways of the brain that are used during substance abuse to hiking trails. She said if a person walks a hiking trail every day, then it will be well-worn and easy to see. When people have a history of repetitively using drugs or alcohol to cope, it is as easy to revert to that habit as it is to return to a once frequently traveled hiking path.

“Even when you have a hiking trail that you haven’t visited in a long time, and it starts to become overgrown, you can still see it. That’s why it’s so easy for people to go back to that, for people to relapse, because they have these pathways in their brain that are already established,” Page said.

Another issue that may have been exacerbated during the pandemic is domestic violence. For some families, quarantines and at-home learning were an opportunity for additional quality time with family. For others, being in close quarters with their family members compounded the stress that existed before shelter-in-place laws.

Domestic violence hotlines expected there to be an increase in need for their services while states enforced stay-at-home orders, but in some areas the number of calls dropped by 50 percent, According to The New England Journal of Medicine. In the first week of March 2020, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services logged over 11,000 child abuse reports, a number that decreased by over a thousand each week. By the last week in March, under 6,000 child abuse reports were recorded, which is a 48 percent reduction from the beginning of the month to the end, according to a KVUE article.

Experts in domestic violence believe the drop in reports does not indicate a drop in the number of situations of domestic violence. The decrease in reports may be because the teachers, counselors and other school staff members who often report child abuse and domestic violence didn’t have as much access to students during the period of online learning. Since teachers, counselors and other school staff members weren’t seeing children every day, they weren’t able to spot the signs and symptoms of an abused child.

Page emphasized that when parents cope with stress in unhealthy ways, children sense tension and experience stress of their own. She said that scholar John Gottman was able to determine which couples had the greatest amount of stress in their marriage based on the cortisol levels their children released in their urine. Not only do children notice stress, they also notice how their parents deal with stress. Children learn how to regulate and manage their emotions from their parents.

“When parents can’t manage well, kids pick up on it. I tell my clients all the time ‘healthy parents have healthy kids.’ If the parents are struggling, then the kids are going to be having a hard time too. That’s why it’s so important to make sure parents are taking care of themselves, that they have their outlets, that they have their people that they’re going to,” Page said.

Shae Owens, counselor at Hillsboro Elementary School, said that children should know that every feeling is valid; it’s what we do with them that can have a positive or negative impact.

“Younger students are like little sponges. They soak everything in. If they see parents taking care of their emotions and being responsive to what is going on with them, then they’re going to take that on as well. They are going to believe that self care is important,” Owens said.

Another potential effect of isolation could be children’s social skills worsening. When children transitioned to online learning, they were spending their days in front of the screens instead of interacting with friends and teachers. Pastor Rehrig worried about what the future of children would have been if online learning and strict social distancing guidelines had lasted longer.

Rehrig said, “When they do finally get back together, they won’t know how to be children. They won’t know how to interact. They won’t know how to befriend one another. They will have lost some social skills that they should’ve been developing for two years of their life. How is that going to play out when they get to be 30 or 40 years old? What will their interaction with adults be like?”

Page said that she thought young people’s social skills were already declining prior to the pandemic because of unhealthy amounts of social media usage. For young teenagers and adults alike, a common pastime during stay-at-home orders was scrolling through social media. Social media, during the pandemic and otherwise, can often be a place for expressing opinions on politics. People have used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to argue about mask mandates, vaccines and conspiracy theories related to the pandemic.

Page said, “It’s this huge sounding board where people just want to say whatever they think, and they’re not really willing to be open to what other people think. It says, ‘I want to put my point of view out there, but I don’t care what anybody else has to say.’ That has been my experience. Typically, that tends to be what my clients think of it also. People aren’t open to new ideas on social media. They just want to be heard, and that’s it.”

Rehrig agreed that social media can be divisive, and it can spread falsehoods. He said even when he sees a social media post that he knows is not factual and would love to correct it, he stays out of the argument because he knows how fast online arguments can escalate. Social media users must decide which is worse: allowing a false rumor to continue to spread without addressing it or speaking out in dissent only to be met with hateful words in response.

“It divides us, unquestionably for me. Everybody so flippantly, so easily, so without thinking, just throws out all of this junk about anything that they want to say,” Rehrig said.

Page’s advice for people who have seen politics as a point of contention in their friendships is to be open to renegotiating boundaries of what topics they are comfortable discussing with their friends. Rehrig advised that people should prioritize communicating with love in every encounter. Even if two friends disagree, they can still treat each other with respect and embrace friends who think differently.

Another point of division can be deciding whether it is more important to allow children to have a relatively normal, socialized childhood or to keep them more isolated to ensure their safety. This can be a difficult balance for parents to navigate.

“I honestly question myself whether or not you’re teaching the child to be afraid of life. But is it necessary though to keep the child healthy? Is it one of those where you’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t type of scenarios? I do not know. That’s what is the frustrating part about this whole thing. You know it’s not healthy what’s happening, but you also at the same time wonder ‘is it necessary, or is it not necessary?’ I do not know what the true answer is,” Rehrig said.

 To improve students’ mental health and to promote positive interactions between students, Hillsboro Elementary School began teaching a social-emotional learning program called Choose Love. The program, which the school began implementing before the pandemic, helps children identify their feelings and manage them and show empathy and compassion for others. Owens said typically it falls solely on the counselors to teach Choose Love to the children during the counselors’ designated lesson times. However, ever since the children returned to in-person learning last fall, teachers have been dedicating the first 20 minutes of every day to Choose Love, to help children approach the rest of the day with a positive mindset.

“Social-emotional learning has become a buzzword in education, especially since the pandemic started because people realize that not only do we need to focus on children’s academic needs, but we also have to focus on their social- emotional needs,” Owens said.

Part of Hillsboro ISD’s Choose Love program teaches children mindfulness and how to be present in the current moment. Page said mindfulness can be helpful to anxious people of all age groups.

“Mindfulness is a lot of grounding techniques, really being able to orient yourself to the present moment. With anxiety, it tends to have a lot to do with worry and fear of the future. If people can ground themselves and they can bring themselves back to this place of, ‘Right now I am sitting in my living room, and I am perfectly 100% safe, and there’s nothing that I need to do right now in this moment,’ then they can be better at managing that anxiety,” Page said.

Owens’ other advice for parents was to try to limit young children’s exposure to negative media coverage that they might not understand and to keep children following a routine, because routines make children feel safe. Both Owens and Page recommend actively listening to children’s feelings and helping them feel welcome to express their emotions. Sending an angry child to his room makes him feel like his parents don’t want to be around him when he is angry or sad.

Page said, “If I’m sad and my husband ignores me, well that’s just going to upset me even more because then I feel like my feelings don’t matter. Kids feel the same way. I really think they just want to be seen and validated.”

Although the pandemic has taken a toll on many people’s mental health, Page said that she is glad it has made psychological help more accessible. She can now help homebound people by meeting with them virtually. Mental and physical health are interconnected, so access to mental health care can improve overall health and well-being.

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