SALT LAKE CITY — With many schools and church meetings canceled, employees working from home, and daily news reports painting a grim picture of the still-mysterious and spreading COVID-19, life right now feels anything but normal.
Most understand the importance of frequent hand-washing, stocking up on food and staying home if sick.
But how can we fight the potential mental health effects of a pandemic, for ourselves and our families?
That’s one question Michaela Esplin, a mother of three kids age 7 and younger, is navigating as she talks to them about why their activities are being canceled.
Her oldest has been hearing a lot about the coronavirus at school. “And he has been bringing some of those concerns home,” Esplin said.
The 7-year-old feels anxiety about anything that could pose a danger to him or his family.
“He’s very, very protective of his baby brother,” the mom explained.
While “it’s kind of scary, having to talk to your kids about something so serious,” Esplin said, she focuses on keeping information for them manageable.
Dr. Travis Mickelson, medical director of Mental Health Integration at Intermountain Healthcare, said he and his colleagues are seeing many patients come into the clinic with anxiety about the virus. He’s also seeing it among his family and friends.
“I think we’re all concerned and distressed by this rapidly changing amount of information we’re getting about this,” Mickelson said, adding that it’s normal for a situation like this to create anxiety and even depression.
Helping your children
Social distancing “will become part of the vernacular” in Utah “for a long time,” Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday, announcing that K-12 schools in the state will be dismissed for two weeks starting Monday.
“The goal is to have them be at home studying, reading, doing their homework assignments, so they’re actually still in school,” said Dr. Joseph Miner, director of the Utah Department of Health.
As children come home with questions, honesty will be key, Mickelson said.
“And I think it’s going to be really important for parents as they’re helping to support and manage their children’s anxieties and fear, that they themselves are taking care of their own anxiety so that they’re not sending nonverbal language that there’s something to really be afraid of,” Mickelson said.
In the home, he said it’s important to create an environment where everyone can feel comfortable expressing their fears and emotions about the virus.
“And of course, from a parent’s perspective, the way we approach our children is really based on their developmental level. But I think it’s really important to be honest and open, and be viewed as a source of truth for our kids,” Mickelson said, as well as be “reassuring” to them.
On Thursday, Esplin said she gathered her family together and gave them the details that they need, while leaving out those that might cause them unnecessary fear and panic.
“Just keeping it simple, in terms that they understand. And then we just talked about things that we can be doing as a family to stay healthy and be safe. And so I had them help me come up with ideas that we can be doing as a family together,” Esplin recalled.
They talked about “how they need to be going outside to get sunshine,” how they’re going to avoid eating sugar and focus on “eating really healthy foods and just building up our immune systems,” Esplin said.
Kathie Supiano, associate professor at University of Utah College of Nursing and a licensed clinical social worker, agrees that being truthful with children about what’s going on — and why they should do things like wash their hands more — is important.
And while many normal children’s activities are canceled, Supiano said it’s also important to remember they still need fun.
“And so you’re not able to go to the zoo, and you’re not able to go to museums, and things like that. And so parents really do need to be more creative with fun, and just kind of let their kids to be a little bit of wild monkeys, for a while, and just say, ‘This, too, will pass,’” Supiano said.
While children are hearing “no” a lot right now, she said parents should try to say “yes” to activities when they can.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox emphasized on Friday that school dismissal will be to avoid putting kids into “mass gatherings,” but they should still be around smaller groups of kids.
Supiano believes how we respond to anxiety can make the difference in staying healthy.
To keep stress at bay, we should “be really careful about social isolation,” according to Supiano. While keeping necessary social distance or staying home from activities — or avoiding visiting parents over the age of 60 — it can be “easy to feel cut off from your community.”
“And so we need to be creative about that. We need to check in with each other frequently. We can do that through technology,” she said.
People can also still get outside in nature with those they love, while keeping social distance.
Connecting with others, especially offering them support during a pandemic can also have the effect of modeling to children “that we reach out to each other in times of stress and anxiety,” she said.
“This is a really particularly important time to reach out to older adults in your neighborhood or in your community groups,” Supiano said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we should go to their homes to visit, but we should offer them support, as they are most at risk from the virus and social isolation measures.
“One of the things that happens when people do stay connected, especially if they feel they’re supporting other people, is that that sensation boomerangs back on them in terms of well-being,” Supiano said.
Helping others also helps us “look like we’re calm,” which is beneficial to children, she said.
“At first, I think it is important to appreciate that something like this is going to be distressing to us and could likely increase symptoms of anxiety or even depression,” Mickelson said.
But it’s important for those experiencing anxiety to remember to use healthy coping strategies that work for them.
For those affected by the cancelation of their means of social interaction, like church meetings or college, staying busy with other activities can help, he said.
Facetime, phone calls, and journaling “can make us feel like we’re engaged, even though we’re physically isolated,” Mickelson said.
Supiano also urged people to focus on self-care, including eating well, resting and exercising, as those things are essential in maintaining mental health as well as physical health.
“And they’re not selfish things right now. When people are under stress, they need that undergirding of self-care.”
People should also limit their exposure to the news, while still staying updated on what’s going on. While consuming news, she said people should focus on finding “truthful” information rather than gossip about the virus.
Mickelson said that staying informed, for many, is empowering. He also urged people to seek their information from reputable sources.
Supiano says she foresees a time when the crisis is over, and we will feel “edified” because “we all got through it together.”
Though the demand on the health care system is “rapidly” changing, Mickelson reminded Utahns that access to mental health services remains available.
“Just because someone is being told to stay home, or being asked to not be in large places, does not mean that they’re alone when it comes to needing support in a time of crisis,” Mickelson said.