by Dr. Kimberly Murray, LMFT
Mental health struggles are at an all-time high. The year 2020 has taken many turns globally that no person, family, community, or company could have planned for, leading to a pervasive sense of crisis and trauma. To make matters worse, admitting that our mental health is struggling or seeking mental health support is riddled with stigma, judgment, and misconceptions, preventing people from seeking the support they need. These challenges are magnified by race, cultural background, religion, age, access to health care, wealth, education level, and the list goes on.
Mental health struggles and the impacts of the inevitable trauma experienced at this time show up in countless ways, looking and feeling different for each person, family, and community. Untreated mental health concerns can lead to long-lasting effects, including negative physical health ramifications, relationship breakdown, lower mood, family dysfunction, poorer work performance, and so much more. Some people even express feeling a sense of paralysis, unsure of how to best proceed from the depths of pain and fear we are all experiencing back to a place of normalcy and calm.
Mental health is a universal concern for all people, much like physical health. Mental health and physical health are intricately intertwined, with deterioration of one subsequently leading to deterioration of the other. So, with this universal truth, why is it that we only talk about and give open support to physical health, full-well knowing how important both are to our quality and longevity of life? It is time for this to immediately change. The way in which we identify and interact with mental struggles and trauma drastically changes the outcome, with greater relief and healing found through support, open conversation, and daily self-care practices.
Many people say that we are in this together, and while this is well-intentioned, it is simply not the truth. Yes, we are all experiencing challenges concurrently, but the way in which we experience them is completely different. This leaves some people feeling alone and judged, with some deeply struggling with their emotions or a primal fear of impending death while others are enjoying the newfound routine and family time. These differences can lead people to feel reactive, angry, mean, sad, frustrated, suspicious, and a whole complex web of other emotions.
The long-term impacts of current experiences and heightened emotions are unknown, but based on research and past experiences, these will be detrimental for years to come if left untreated and under-supported. It is tempting to say we are “fine,” but this short-changes our genuine experiences and needs, creating further harm and shame.
Families in Pain
More specifically to families, most parents are in completely uncharted territory, learning how to simultaneously work from home, homeschool, spend every moment with their children and partner, never leaving home, or getting a break. Some families worry that they will be homeless, will not be able to provide their children with food, cannot pay their bills, may not have a job, or fear abuse at home that they can no longer escape. This can be exhausting and honestly debilitating. What is worse is that we do not know how or when it will end, creating uncertainty and ambiguity that does not align with natural human desires. We seek routine and definitive knowledge, something impossible for many to obtain right now. Parents then further worry about their children and how the lack of in-person schooling will impact them, how to appropriately talk to their children about all that is going on, and the sense of grief many teens and college students are feeling with the loss of graduations and proper “good-byes.”
Parents are right to worry. The struggles of children and teens are virtually invisible, often being invalidated with the belief that children do not understand what is going on or that they are unimpacted by these crises. Parents’ temptations may lead them to ignore necessary conversations in an attempt to protect their children from the chaos and pain. While well-intentioned, these parenting choices further disenfranchise children and invalidate their very real fears, pain, anger, sadness, confusion, and awareness of all that is happening. This may lead children to act out or socially isolate, potentially impacting their long-term development. Children and teens crave routine, but they also crave honesty, support, and open dialogue, even about these intensely heavy and ambiguous issues. All of this again is further complicated for children of color, lower socioeconomic status, and unsupportive homes, creating even more complex needs that must be directly addressed.
So, what do we do about this and how do we move forward? Consider for a moment a child that has experienced trauma. After the traumatic event, the child will likely act out with irrational behavior, crying, pain, anger, and confusion until they get the proper help and support they need. The same reaction is seen across the lifespan, including all the way through adulthood. We are witnessing this in real-time both throughout the pandemic, as well as the protests and riots. Behaviors are merely a symptom of the emotional distress that a person is in, regardless of age. With the child, we see their distress and meet it with compassion, patience, a desire to love and support them, and a listening ear. But with an adult, we tend to meet them with judgment, ostracization, and contempt.
What if we applied the same level of love, support, and grace to these adults and families in the depths of their pain and fear that we do for the aforementioned child? This can be as simple as picking up the phone and calling or texting someone you know is struggling and offering your non-judgmental, unconditional support. The change in mental health outcomes could be monumental.
Aside from compassion and grace for our fellow humans, what else can we do? First, do not ignore it. We must acknowledge that we are in a global crisis and accept that we are each struggling in our own unique, but equally valid, ways. If you or someone you know wakes up angry, anxious, sad, fearful, uneasy, or confused, it is time to seek support, including for your children. This could be in the form of therapy or through other incredible community resources. Ignoring it will not make it go away, but rather intensify the pain and make it more difficult to overcome.
Do not wait to get the support you need and deserve. Second, consider how you are taking care of your health in multiple ways, including mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional health. If even one of these categories is lacking, it is time to change up your self-care routine. Each is vital to your overall health and complexly interwoven with all the others.
You are not Alone
While we each have had a different experience throughout this year, you are never alone. There are countless resources out there designed to help you process what has occurred and begin to heal. As a marriage and family therapist with Safe Haven Family Therapy, LLC, I offer support to individuals, couples, and families struggling with a wide variety of concerns. I provide this support online, making therapy convenient and easy for you and your loved ones. If you have further questions about mental health, what you read in this article, or the supportive resources available to you, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I can be reached at (970) 460-8015 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to connect you with exactly what you uniquely need, even if it isn’t therapy with me. Mental health is a universal challenge right now and we all deserve support and to start healing! ⎣
According to Dr. Murray, here are some practical ideas to exercise self-care:
• Practice grace over guilt. If your body is tired, rest. If you are angry or sad, sit with it and let yourself feel it. Rather than judging ourselves, we must give ourselves grace and compassion.
• Daily self-care: do what makes your body feel good and calm every single day for at least 15 minutes.
• Limit consumption of news, social media, and violent movies/TV/music.
• Eat to fuel your body with good nutrition, including limiting sugar intake, alcohol consumption, and caffeine. This improves not only your mood and physical health, but your ability to remain stable in crisis and avoid fight, flight, or freeze mode.
• Exercise and get physical activity every day for at least one hour.
• Go outside every single day and get some fresh air. Bonus points if you go for a walk or hike.
• Garden and tend to flowers.
• Take a hot bath alone.
• Meditate, practice mindfulness, or engage in mindful movement, such as with yoga or Pilates.
• Practice good sleep hygiene: your bed is only for sleep and sex, not phones, watching TV, or doing work; do not eat 2 hours before bed or drink fluids 1 hour before bed; no screens (iPads, phones, tablets, TVs, etc.) 1 hour before bed.
• Sleep at least 7 hours every single night.
• Reach out to others to ask for or offer support, or simply to talk every day. Social connection is critical to the human body, mind, and soul.
• Send a note or card to someone you love just because you can.
• Journal about your experiences and feelings through this challenging time.
• Write down what you are grateful for each day, finding meaning and thankfulness even with the pain and chaos ever-present.
Dr. Murray is a licensed therapist and can be reached at (970) 460-8015 or at email@example.com.