Empowering Parents to Take Charge of Their Mental Health

“Parents Are Not Okay,” said the headline in a recent article in the Atlantic magazine. “We’re not even at a breaking point anymore,” said the subhead. “We’re broken.” As a parent, the story resonated with me, as it probably does with you. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we started with two weeks to slow the curve, then it was two months. Now we are approaching two years. The pandemic has been a chronic source of stress for so long that it’s wearing on all of us. We’re all tired.

Maybe it’s not enough to lead to a definitive mental health diagnosis, but parenting in the current environment is really taking a toll on our overall mental health. In survey after survey, parents report feeling a negative mood, more chronically, in larger amounts than before the pandemic. And that negative mood is sustaining, even though some of the restrictions of the early pandemic have been lessened. I can also tell you that a significant portion of the patients I treat at Caron now have children under 12.

As a psychologist in a residential treatment environment, I see people whose anxiety, depression and other co-occurring mental health issues have become unmanageable – including a substance use disorder – and they are now in need of greater assistance to move forward in a healthier way.

But I think a great many people are struggling with anxiety and depression and don’t even realize it. They find themselves being overwhelmed by persistent fatigue, or perhaps they are quicker to anger with their family and colleagues. They don’t fully understand what they are experiencing, or why, and it often leads to unhealthy coping.

Depression can creep up on you

Connection is so important to mental wellness, which is why the social distancing and quarantining of the pandemic hit us so hard. Add in schools moving to remote learning, daycare centers closing while employers still insist on a full day working at home, or perhaps even job loss and financial difficulties, and you had the makings of an insanely stressful home environment.

It was too easy for people who suddenly found themselves lacking adequate social support to feel adrift. Not knowing where to turn, they often instead began to turn inward, to hold all their feelings of anger, sadness, or frustration within themselves. The longer such feelings are internalized, the more overwhelming they become and the greater devastation they can cause.

Sleep becomes difficult because the mind is always racing, stewing over unshared worries. Without adequate rest, it is harder to cope during the day, which leads to more things to stew over at night. This leads to chronic fatigue and a lack of energy. People are doing the best they can, but they soon feel overwhelmed in every aspect of their lives.

But depression doesn’t always manifest as a feeling of fatigue and sadness. One of the symptoms of depression that people forget about is increased irritability, where someone has a short temper and is quick to react, sometimes inappropriately so. They seem defensive, like they’re just itching for a fight. Such irritability and defensiveness can be aligned with a lot of different mental health conditions, but it's very prominent symptom of depression itself.

Signs someone needs help

We live in abnormal times, and one might expect to see “normal reactions” to the abnormality of life. There is probably not one of us who hasn’t felt overwhelmed, sad, or anxious over the past year, but it becomes problematic if the feelings start interfering with the ability to function in day-to-day living.

Some of the key signs include:

  • A significant change of functioning. A star performer at work or school suddenly struggles with assignments. Or perhaps someone who was always on top of household chores no longer has any interest in keeping things in order.
  • Changes in sleep. This might include difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early.
  • Fatigue and lethargy. Certainly, it's hard sometimes to get up in the morning, but this is a step beyond that.
  • A change in engagement with loved ones. A normally communicative spouse suddenly won’t express their feelings. Or perhaps there's over communication.
  • Irritability and conflict. Reactions might seem beyond what would be expected for a situation – like intense rage or anger over a seemingly simple question.
  • Variation in grooming. Perhaps someone who was always been fastidious stops caring about how they look or how they dress.
  • Changes in behavior in children. This can indicate that there's an imbalance in the family, perhaps a parent is struggling. Children can be extremely perceptive, even if they don’t fully understand what they are seeing or experiencing, and it can show up as a change in behavior at school or other areas outside the house. A good student suddenly starts struggling. A happy, outgoing student becomes sullen and withdrawn. A child who usually gets along with others is suddenly getting into fights and arguments.

There are also many other risk factors that might suggest a predisposition for mental illness – a blood relative who has been diagnosed, a chronic medical condition, a traumatic event, a history of alcohol or drug use. This last risk factor can be another sign of needing help if use is increasing or if an occasional use of alcohol becomes chronic.

Ways to take care of yourself

We can't change the pandemic, but we can certainly change our response to it. There are many ways we can work to reduce the stress we feel and promote a greater sense of mental wellness.

Grant yourself grace. These are truly difficult circumstances, and we need to give ourselves the grace we need, to acknowledge that sometimes it’s enough just to get through the day. Parents have a lot of “balls in the air,” and it’s okay to let some of those balls drop so you can concentrate on the things that are most important.

Be creative and self-reflective. I have a sign in my office that says, "What do I need to be okay?" The answer might look different than it did two years ago, or even two months ago, because things are changing so much and so quickly. Amid the chaos, it makes sense to stop occasionally, do a reflective self-check, and ask, “What do I need right now to be okay?”

Choose where you put your energy. As parents, we have a lot of demands on us, but we and only we can decide where we want to put our energy. While we may never feel truly balanced, if we cultivate a sense that we can decide where our energy goes, then we experience a more solid footing. Along with that, we need a sense of grounding, a solid sense of a foundation and an understanding of what our priorities are in life – children, family, faith, career, what have you – so that we’re not swinging back and forth like a weathervane, just floundering in the wind. This means our boundaries need to be strong so we can do less and say no at times when one more activity, obligation or issue would push us to the brink.

Connection is key to maintaining wellness. One of the strongest protective factors against mental illness is a sense of connection. Part of our self-check might be to assess our feeling of connection to the people in our household, to our faith community, to our community in general or to nature. The pandemic made many of those connections challenging, but we are now in a place where we can take safety precautions that will allow us to strengthen our sense of connection – our proverbial village – so we can ditch the isolation and experience a collective feeling of support.

Make time for yourself. Time is one of the most valuable and perhaps scarcest resources for a parent. With the demands of childrearing, career, and housekeeping, parents simply don’t have much time for self-care. But perhaps the solution is a matter of reconceptualizing. Instead of an hour to yourself, look for pockets of five, ten, fifteen minutes at a time. Perhaps that drive to the grocery store – a nuisance in a hectic day – instead becomes a welcomed break. Perhaps there’s someone in your social distancing circle who can support you by watching the kids play outside for a bit.

Even the downtime when the kids watch a show can be a respite. Instead of berating yourself for being a bad parent, realize that personal recharge time benefits your family tenfold and it really outweighs the risk of a little bit of increased screen time for the kids.

How to help someone who is struggling

It can be difficult to know how to offer support to someone you see struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression. Will my effort be seen as an invasion of privacy? Will saying something risk the friendship? As a mental health professional, I can tell you that many people only get the help they need because someone cared enough to reach out.

Sometimes it’s somebody in the home that notices the change, but often the shift in behavior has been so gradual that those at home don’t recognize the extent of the issue. It may take somebody outside of the home – from work or from picking up kids at school or daycare, or friends wondering why they’ve lost touch with someone.

The best approach is a transparent one, with simple questions/statements that invite someone to share:

  • You've been going through a lot lately. How are you doing?
  • Is there anything I can do to help?
  • I've noticed these changes, and I just want to make sure you're okay.
  • Has anything changed at home?
  • Please, if you ever need anything, let me know.
  • I get that it may feel like too much right now, please reach out when you are ready.

Acknowledge the level of stress, offer an opportunity to share, reinforce your connection to them. But they themselves must be ready to accept help. It may take multiple conversations, so think of each conversation as planting a seed that may bear fruit later. Ask the question seven different ways. It may even require the question be asked by multiple people.

Helping might be as simple as showing them how to order groceries online. Alleviating some of the stress can go a long way. Depending on your level of intimacy, you may be able to find therapeutic ways to help, such as introducing them to a parent support group. The leader of your faith community might have an idea of resources, as could a primary care physician. Individual therapy can also be a great option.

Early intervention matters

Early intervention is key, before any of the patterns of behavior become ingrained. Like creases in a piece of paper, unhealthy and self-destructive behaviors become easier and easier to fall into as they become habitual.

With depression, over time everything in us will attempt to align with that depressive state. The behaviors reinforce one another, and our brain chemistry begins to change. It just keeps getting worse and worse, and the longer it goes on, the less likely a person is going to have the energy or the ability to break out of it without extensive support.

The good news is that intervention, at any stage, can help put people on an even keel. If you recognize the problem in yourself, take steps to change what you are doing. Take a moment to reflect and ask yourself, “What do I need to be okay?” If you see a loved one, friend or colleague struggling, take the initiative to ask a simple question, “You've been going through a lot lately. How are you doing?”

As parents, we can't magically change the pandemic, but we can take steps toward a different response. Together, we can ask for help to reduce the emotional pain and stress we feel and take our lives in a more productive direction.

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