Blog Articles and Resources
It is an unfortunate and sometimes downright upsetting phenomenon to see mental health used as a scapegoat to divert attention from other topics. Many will likely be able to report seeing this happen in the wake of mass shootings. In those instances, some people who wish to divert the conversation away from a focus on gun control may say something like “this isn’t about gun control, this is about mental health.” They tend to claim that untreated mental illness is the real culprit behind the tragedy and often propose solutions such as registries of people with mental health diagnoses that can be used in gun purchases.
While mental health can and certainly often is a factor here—and we personally are always in favor of conversations that might shine a light on the often-overlooked problem of untreated mental illness in this country—the motivation behind this attention is likely simply to turn attention away from another urgently important but less politically desirable topic.
This kind of diversion tactic unfolded again last spring and summer with calls for schools to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Then-President Donald Trump, many of his supporters, and others claimed that keeping schools closed was very threatening to mental health and that the mental health-related risks of not reopening posed a greater threat than the COVID-related risks of reopening.
It goes without saying that school and socialization are positive drivers of youth mental health. But is it really fair to say that keeping schools closed poses a dire threat to mental health? More dire than the threat of serious outbreaks of a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease? It is here that we must better understand what the evidence we have actually says.
In general, and perhaps not surprisingly, school attendance is associated with better mental health and emotional well-being. Being in school can lead to a greater sense of connectedness, social support, and, more practically, better access to services. The benefit is often more pronounced for students with special needs and those who have behavioral or emotional issues and thus for whom extensive use of technology as part of virtual schooling might be difficult.
Indeed, any population that is already vulnerable will struggle more with school closure. For all students, schools are central to general development (especially for young children), building social and emotional skills, food security (which has an impact on mental health), and addressing social and racial inequity (which also has an impact on mental health).
Given the mental health benefits of being in school, does it necessarily follow that we need to rush our children back into these potentially unsafe conditions in the midst of a pandemic that threatens all of us? Ultimately the question comes down to one of weighing risks. And to be able to weigh risks, we have to have a clear understanding of what has happened to mental health (and what is likely to happen to mental health) as a result of the pandemic and associated school closures and general lockdowns.
There is some reason to believe that the pandemic is already taking a toll on mental health, especially among teens. One study out of Italy and Spain found that 85 percent of parents perceived changes in their children’s emotional state during quarantine. High school and college students are clued into the possibility of the pandemic’s negative effects on their mental health, with more than half in a recent survey expressing concern about their own mental health as a result of the COVID pandemic. Professionals in California have also reported an uptick in depression and anxiety in the teen population since COVID began.
Despite these reports, it is difficult to know the ultimate impact of COVID-19 and associated quarantine on mental health. It may take years before we understand the relationship and even then, it will be hard to isolate COVID-19 as the cause, especially since mental health issues are already on the rise among teens and young adults.
In cases such as these, we would normally advocate carefully and scientifically weighing the risks against one another to reach a decision about when to keep schools open and when to shut them down. But there is simply too much uncertainty here to be able to do that. We don’t fully understand how contagious the virus is specifically among young people, we don’t know what the role of school opening is in the perpetuation of large outbreaks, and we also don’t know how long the pandemic will even last.
In our view, it is not acceptable at this stage to keep schools open or reopen schools on account of mental health when COVID cases are extremely high. It is likely that many factors are involved in whether or not opening schools in specific communities is a major driver of increased viral transmission. We simply don’t know enough about the relationship between quarantine and mental health to be able to say that the risks of keeping children out of school outweigh the risks of COVID-19 spreading widely in a community. In the end, we need to do everything we can to protect both the physical and mental health of as many people as possible.
Mental Health and School Re-Entry | Psychology Today
Much has been written about how the physical distancing and isolation measures in place to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 have increased loneliness. While this is undoubtedly an important way in which the current pandemic is affecting our social lives, there are others worth considering.
One of these pertains to the effects of fear on social relationships. For many of us, the pandemic has been associated with at least some fears—the fear that we, or our loved ones, will contract the virus; the fear that we will pass it on to others, especially those most vulnerable; the fear that our livelihoods will be affected; and even the fear that can be associated with unwittingly failing to follow unrehearsed social rules (e.g., stay sufficiently far from others, not shaking hands). National reports indeed confirm that feelings of fear, or anxiety, have been unusually high and pervasive in the last year. How might fear affect our social lives?
Social scientists have long demonstrated that fear can lead people to come together in an effort to gather strength and resources to combat or overcome what is feared. Studies have found, for example, that survivors of the 2005 London bombings showed impressive solidarity, stopping to help one another despite the strong fear and distress they were experiencing. In a similar vein, we have seen many examples of communities coming together to support their members in coping with the COVID-19 threat. The mutual aid website, established precisely to facilitate community support of those in need during the pandemic, currently lists 2,060 aid groups in the UK alone. This type of behaviour is beneficial to those who receive help, but also to those who provide help, and indeed helping—or the sense of connection and efficacy it engenders—is one of the ways people are advised to combat anxiety.
While it is comforting to reflect on the positive social consequences of such a distressing feeling as fear or anxiety, it is also important to consider the boundaries of this relationship. Specifically, although coming together has been shown to result from fear, fear can also pull people apart. Most obviously, people will try to distance themselves from those whom they fear, and they often fear those they do not know. For example, people from different racial, religious, or national groups often fear one another. Fear might even cause people to derogate others they would not normally be afraid of, just because they are somehow different or unfamiliar (often referred to as an outgroup)—such as when attacks on individuals with disabilities increased in the UK after a series of terrorist attacks.
Less obviously, however, even incidental fear—or fear that does not directly link to judgements being made—can increase social distance or decrease empathy for others. For example, hearing a scary noise, or watching scary images (or perhaps thinking about the threat of COVID-19), can reduce the empathy one feels for the pain experienced by an outgroup member—i.e., an empathy bias. That is, our ability to draw together with others in the face of threats is both rooted in a sense of common fate and identity and constrained by group boundaries.
Many politicians intuitively know this and build fear into their rhetoric to encourage social tribalism. And they are wise to do so, as messages inciting fear are twice as effective at polarising votes as messages without fear. However, the implications of empathy biases for social policy are not always understood, in particular when it comes to the limitations of relying on the goodwill of communities to address social needs. It is heartening to see so much good and voluntary work being done by communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and one might be tempted to see this as a pure demonstration of human kindness. But where there are communities, there are both insiders and outsiders. As such, responses to threat are bound to favour some, and neglect or even disadvantage others, often those who are the least privileged. So, what current scholarship suggests is that we are bound to leave some people out of our helping efforts.
Acknowledging this is an important step towards preventing further inequality. Goodwill goes a long way, but if we are to be truly kind, it is important to acknowledge the pervasiveness of our biases and to develop measures that proactively prevent, monitor, and address social inequalities, which also touch our most seemingly altruistic efforts, such as helping others.
This article is co-authored with Matthew Richins, Ph.D., who carried out his Ph.D. research on empathic biases under my supervision. Matt has worked for Public Health England and is now a Principal Psychologist at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), UK.
This fall, Covid walks have been an important part of my day. They have included family chats, conversations with friends, brainstorms with colleagues, podcasts, nature photography and sometimes simply my own flurry of thoughts on the state of the world.
During these walks, the fresh air rejuvenates me while my steps accumulate. Amidst colder temperatures recently, I have found myself visualizing images of my childhood self comfortable in the snow mounds and angels of Chicago 1979. We can take advantage of the outdoors at all ages, but there seems to be growing awareness that this winter may impinge on outdoor social connections and require further adaptation in the months ahead.
In Life Is In The Transitions, Bruce Feiler discusses that life is filled with transitions; he calculates there are an average of three to five lifequakes and three dozen disruptors in the course of a lifetime, averaging one every twelve to eighteen months. He defines a disruptor as “an event or experience that interrupts the everyday flow of one’s life” and categorizes these into areas of love, work, identity, body, and beliefs. Covid has been a collective transition that has required resilience the past several months. Here are a few ways to support yourself as we move forward:
Honor your grief process. Continue to acknowledge losses and disappointments. We may be grieving losses from earlier in the pandemic or new losses. These can include loss of family members, food security, structured routines, social networks, control, school, traditions, work environments, extracurriculars, freedom, and more. Melissa Sellevaag of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing explains that the grief we are experiencing around Covid can be complicated by the “collective” nature of it. Many within our community are mourning some degree of loss so that reserves in our support systems may feel stretched currently. In addition to the time you are giving children or aging parents, be sure to give yourself healthy space to reflect on your own grief.
Help others and yourself. Finding ways to continue to connect to peers, loved ones, and the larger community is crucial. Leveraging support systems and accessing networks of friends, family, colleagues, coaches, teachers, and community leaders in person with appropriate public health measures or virtually this winter gives all ages the connectedness we crave in our new schedules. In his new book Finding Meaning, world-renowned grief expert David Kessler proposes meaning as the sixth stage of grief after denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Doing service together as a family not only provides connection to the larger community but can also be a source of meaning. Contactless food and clothing drives, making sewn and non-sewn masks, and virtual tutoring are just a few of the ways to participate in physically distant service. Research shows that altruistic acts not only benefit the recipients of the acts but are also beneficial to the well-being of the givers.
Habits of gratitude. Find moments to be intentional about cultivating gratitude. There is space within us to hold different emotions at the same time. We can be thankful for aspects of our current day and yet also grieve losses we are experiencing. Martin Seligman, the founding father of Positive Psychology, and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania asked people to write down three things they were grateful for. “The three things need not be earthshaking in importance,” he explains in his book Flourish. When people did this for one week, happiness was increased and depressive symptoms were decreased for up to six months.
Hugs. This winter hugs may feel good to your heart in more ways than one. Research shows that hugs are related to higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland, and associated with lower blood pressure and lower norepinephrine, the primary neurotransmitter of the cardiovascular system. Squeeze in as many 20 second hugs as you can get because not only do they feel good, they may also be cardioprotective through their effects on blood pressure and the sympathetic nervous system.
Health. Use this winter to set some small, achievable healthy goals for yourself. Reframe the next 3 months as an opportunity to do something positive for your health. A regular exercise routine will not only give you a number of physical benefits, but the release of endorphins will also benefit your mood. Replace your “commute” with a walk or workout routine. Be consistent and keep it simple. In a cross-sectional study of more than 3,000 adults, participants who were physically active pre-Covid showed a reduction of physical activity by one-third during Covid. Not being physically active during Covid was associated with worse mental health. It is important as we head into the winter to plan a routine that will work to keep you moving. Find the best time and space, and do what you can. While on the phone, get up from your chair and walk around. Insert in a yoga stretch between Zoom calls. Explore apps, YouTube channels, virtual studio classes. Use jump ropes, soup can weights or simply your own body to squat and plank. Invite a few friends who give you positive energy to join your wellness accountability group, connect to set collective goals, and record weekly totals to keep yourself and your team inspired.
5 Ways to Support Yourself This Winter | Psychology Today
5 Ways to Deal with Caregiving Stress During COVID New report reveals caregiver stress at crisis levels during COVID-19 Pandemic
We’re usually aware of our own suffering, which – broadly defined – includes the whole range of physical and mental discomfort, from mild headache or anxiety to the agony of bone cancer or the anguish of losing a child. (Certainly, there is more to life than suffering, including great joy and fulfillment; that said, we’ll sustain a single focus here.)
But seeing the suffering in others: that’s not so common. All the news and pictures of disaster, murder, and grief that bombard us each day can ironically numb us to suffering in our own country and across the planet. Close to home, it’s easy to tune out or simply miss the stress and strain, unease and anger, in the people we work, live – even sleep – with.
This creates problems for others, of course. Often what matters most to another person is that someone bears witness to his or her suffering, that someone just really gets it; it’s a wound and a sorrow when this doesn’t happen. And at the practical level, if their suffering goes unnoticed, they’re unlikely to get help.
Plus, not seeing suffering harms you as well. You miss information about the nature of life, miss chances to have your heart opened, miss learning what your impact on others might be. Small issues that could have been resolved early on grow until they blow up. People don’t like having their pain overlooked, so they’re more likely to over-react, or be uncharitable toward you when you’re the one having a hard time. Wars and troubles that seemed so distant come rippling across our own borders; to paraphrase John Donne, if we don’t heed the faraway tolling of the bell for others, it will eventually come tolling for thee and me.
This week look at faces – at work, walking down the street, in the mall, across the dinner table. Notice the weariness, the bracing against life, the wariness, irritability, and tension. Sense the suffering behind the words. Feel in your body what it would be like for you to have the life of the other person.
Be careful not to be overwhelmed. Take this in small doses, even a few seconds at a time. If it helps, recall some of the happy truths of life, or the sense of being with people who love you. Know that there are ten thousand causes upstream of each person leading to this present moment: so much complexity, so hard to blame a single factor.
And then open up again to the suffering around you. To a child who feels like an afterthought, a worker who fears a layoff, a couple caught up in anger. Don’t glide over faces on the evening news, see the suffering in the eyes looking back at you.
Watch and listen to those closest to you. What’s hurting over there? Face it, even if you have to admit that you are one of its causes. If appropriate, ask some questions, and talk about the answers.
How does it feel to open to suffering? You could find that it brings you closer to others, and that there is more kindness coming back your way. You could feel more grounded in the truth of things, particularly in how it is for the people around you.
Take heart. Opening to suffering is one of the bravest things a person can do.
Photo by Pexels
Almost 30 percent of Americans 65 and older (that’s about 11 million people) live alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of these seniors to retreat even further away from their loved ones, making an already challenging situation that much worse.
Social isolation in seniors has a serious impact on their mental health—and can lead to some pretty devastating physical ailments, as well. Even though the pandemic is keeping many of us physically apart, seniors can use technology to stay connected to friends and family. Here’s how.
Get comfortable with your devices
Handheld devices like tablets and smartphones are as common as wearing clothes these days. While some seniors may feel intimidated by this kind of technology, there are many free online tutorials to get you set up. You can get great deals on laptops and tablets every day, but especially if you shop deals. Don’t forget to look into webcams, headphones and other digital communication devices.
Play games that boost your memory
Communicating with loved ones is an easy and effective way to stave off memory issues and cognitive decline in seniors. But with fewer opportunities to connect in person, people over 65 will want to explore new ways of stimulating their minds online. Not only can you chat with other people playing online games, but the games themselves will boost your brain. Some of the highest rated apps for seniors, like Luminosity and CogniFit Brain Fitness, have free options and trials.
Make money in retirement
Many seniors stave off social isolation by working a bit in retirement. The global pandemic has changed the American workforce, and seniors may feel too overwhelmed to find ways to participate. You can improve confidence and self-esteem by earning a certificate or license in a self-paced online program. Many of these also offer discussion forums for people to connect on group work and all kinds of topics. Seniors can then apply for telecommute part-time positions with their new-found skills. Having meaningful work that connects you to others can help reduce depression, lethargy and feelings of hopelessness.
Get active for physical and mental health
Exercise in some form is good for everyone, but especially seniors. Not only can it help battle arthritis and heart disease, but it can also improve your mood and reduce stress. With tensions running high these days, seniors can make exercise a part of their daily routine by joining live virtual yoga and workout classes. Smartwatches help you track fitness performance and promote social interaction. You can compete with friends and family members for steps, miles, calories burned and other fitness metrics.
Tech that lets you try something new
Retirement is a time for R&R, but those entering in their golden years during the age of COVID might feel a bit stifled. Seniors can take charge of their mental health by trying new things virtually with their loved ones. Take an online cooking class with your next door neighbor and share your dishes in an appropriately socially distant way. Watch interesting documentaries with your adult children or young grandchildren while FaceTiming on your iPhone. Dust off your green thumb and text pictures of your new plants to your friends or members of your gardening club.
While some people think technology isolates us, through the global pandemic we are learning amazing new ways it can bring us together. These connections are different, but they don’t have to be eliminated all together. Staying social with technology during the COVID isolation can help seniors gain new skills, wider perspective and a strong sense of belonging.
Information provided by Mary Shannon
Research demonstrates our memories are not as accurate as we believe.
While most people think their memories represent the truth, the evidence demonstrates that our memories depend very much on the circumstances we are experiencing at the time and that they shift over time. A large body of research shows that emotions, especially those provoked by negative events, can lead to inaccurate or even completely false memories.
Depression, anxiety, and stress—three mental health problems linked to the COVID-19 pandemic—consistently lead to false memories, said Charles Brainerd, a Cornell University psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts in false memories. “Continuously being in a dark mood makes it difficult to remember the details of your life,” he said. “Things that substantially elevate people’s stress levels lead to poor encoding of events as we experience them, which in turn elevates false memories.”
Brainerd and his research partner, Cornell psychologist Valerie Reyna, have developed the fuzzy-trace theory of false memory, which says that there are two types of memory: verbatim and gist.
Verbatim memory is a vivid, literal record of specific details. Gist memories are fuzzy recollections of past events, which capture their meaning and have a much more powerful influence over longer periods of time. In other words, if you are remembering an event from a year ago, you are more likely to rely on the gist of what happened than remember specific details. False memories occur when your brain attempts to fill in the blanks of a gist memory.
“Fuzzy-trace theory predicts people who experience persistent negative moods are at elevated risk of forming false memories because the memories are distorted to fit a negative take on life,” Brainerd said. “Prolonged levels of high stress from continuing financial, educational, and social uncertainty are a major cause of persistent negative moods. Thanks to the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire country has been experiencing such prolonged levels of high stress for many months. Worse, those uncertainties have been heightened by the lack of clear federal policies to contain the pandemic.”
There is another dynamic taking place this year that may also lead to false memories—the increasing incidence of misleading or false news stories.
A recent study by Irish researchers, which included more than 3,700 participants, examined how fabricated news stories about COVID-19 affected the accuracy of participants’ memories about the virus itself. People who were able to objectively assess knowledge about COVID-19 were less likely to create false memories and more likely to tell the difference between true and false stories.
On the other hand, participants who believed themselves to be very knowledgeable about COVID-19 were more likely to report a memory for any story, true or false. Those who reported high levels of “media engagement” or anxiety about COVID-19 were more likely to recall both true and false stories, but also demonstrated heightened sensitivity to the difference between true and false stories. Surprisingly, participants who felt more anxious about the pandemic were less likely to report false memories.
The researchers concluded that a person’s knowledge about COVID-19 and his or her tendency to think critically are important indicators as to whether or not they create false memories related to the pandemic.
The take-home message: Our memories are malleable and our circumstances have a surprisingly important effect on them. The experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic—including social distancing, isolation, and anxiety about the virus—are all elements affecting our memories during this time.
Many parents have been dreading the upcoming school year all summer, and regardless of what stage you're at in your parenting journey, it may feel like a big looming cloud of uncertainty is hanging over our heads. As many of us are in the midst of the transition back to school, it’s time to really sit with and acknowledge our feelings in order to consciously choose how to model the behavior we want for our kids and teens
No matter what, this fall will not look like anything we’ve ever seen. While it’s stating the obvious, it’s not “normal” back to school and the various nuances of this reality will have a significant impact on all of us and our children. We will have to make an effort to accept that there are no great choices, and adjust accordingly to whatever choices we will have available.
But, how do we do this?
Start by sitting with your emotions. Acknowledge all of the feelings that arise. You may notice that you have anxious, fearful or feelings of frustration, and that there are ways that these feelings are also showing up in your body. Be still with what makes you uncomfortable and become aware of the thoughts about your current situation that are creating your feelings. When you start to notice and accept all of your feelings, you can begin to become more proactive rather than reactive in managing them.
One of the ongoing themes that I focus on with my clients is how to learn how to manage our minds, by accepting what we have control over and what we don’t.
Worrying is the mind's way of trying to protect us from a perceived danger, and it mistakenly believes that worrying is useful. Pervasive worry leads to a spiral of anxiety that at best is a waste of time, and can lead to additional suffering if we do not learn how to focus on controlling the controllables.
Not everything that you encounter can be changed. For many of us, this global pandemic is an opportunity to accept that much of our lives is not in our control, and resisting this reality creates additional stress and anxiety. Focusing on all of the uncertainty can be overwhelming and can make you feel like you have no control. Think about how you might feel if you're in a spinning room. Reaching out to grab hold of something to stop the movement is your first step. This also goes for your anxious feelings. Look inward, and try to name and understand what you are feeling. Notice what thoughts have created these feelings based on the situation at hand. Just this simple act of naming and noticing our feelings already helps to calm our nervous system a bit.
After you’ve acknowledged your emotions, start thinking about what you actually can control. For instance, you may not know what your child’s school environment will look like, but you probably know that there is the possibility of some distance learning. Start thinking about the work schedule(s) in your family and how you can adjust the times to include shared instruction or support for your children. Perhaps you know that your child will use certain devices to accommodate online learning. Look into purchasing, or obtain access to any necessary devices or equipment, or start emailing your school administration to find out what technology is available from the school. We all know that kids going to school will likely need a mask. Use these last few days to find comfortable, breathable, or fun designed masks that fit properly and that they find comfortable. Taking the first step by controlling what you can will help ease your anxious feelings. For teens, approaching the upcoming school year in a collaborative way that includes their thoughts and feelings will likely yield less power struggles and more buy-in to the shared goal of creating habits and life skills that are the foundation for creating both personal and academic success.
Another way to maintain a warm and supportive connection with your child or teen is to approach conversations about the school year in a calm and open way. Check in on them. Ask open-ended questions periodically to see how they’re feeling. What feelings are they noticing? Remind them that you are a resource for them, available to discuss anything that they may feel concerned about or feel overwhelmed by. You can guide them to become aware of and to acknowledge their own feelings, and help them learn how to control their controllables. For instance, if they’re feeling nervous about the virus, talk with them about what measures they can take to avoid it, what they think might get in the way of them doing the things that they know will protect them, and by reminding them to limit their news intake as needed. Beginning to gradually shift routines and habits that have likely been more flexible during the summer will help. Planning a work area that includes the essential ingredients that your child or teen needs for focus and support will also be especially important this year for distance learning success.
It’s also okay to share some of your feelings. It might be helpful to them to know they are not alone. Kids and teens tend to feel more secure when they know what to expect. Try to discuss these differences when you’re emotionally available to answer their questions calmly and thoughtfully. Ideally, these conversations should not take place before bed when kids and teens might tend to ruminate and become more anxious.
Parents are the best teachers for modeling behavior. This pandemic has been really challenging so far, and it will likely continue to challenge us in new and unforeseen ways. As everything else does, this too shall pass. For now, practice managing your mind and help your children to do the same.
If you notice your child is struggling more than normal, consider connecting with a therapist or life coach. A coach can help your child develop the skills that enable them to be more emotionally flexible and the tools that they need to navigate the challenges that they are facing both during the pandemic and beyond. Do you know a teen or a college-aged girl who could use some guidance in this connective process? Visit my website WillseyConnections.com for more information and let’s connect.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.