By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications

We are living amid a historic public health crisis. It’s reasonable to be concerned, even anxious, and yet experts caution that we should to try to keep daily life as normal as possible.

Or as we sometimes say at TJJD, "Keep Calm No Matter What!"

B0AD23D5 EDF4 4310 846C 4233BB805E06That’s good advice this late summer as children head back to altered or even remote school routines, and we all forge ahead with multiple necessary adaptions in a year fraught with worry, change and grieving.

We, you, have been parrying with the coronavirus and social distancing for six months now and our nerves are understandably frayed. How do we cope? We have heard the exhortations to eat healthy, get enough sleep, maintain a positive outlook and set aside time to enjoy ourselves, despite limited options.

Considering that’s all much easier to say than to accomplish, here are some more practical steps for self-care, gleaned from mental health advisories:

  • Keep to a schedule. For those working essential jobs outside the home, this is a given. But for people who’ve moved to working from home or children taking Zoom classes, it’s important to maintain control over work hours and to delineate “off” time to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  • Incorporate quiet times and calming activities, such as tai chi, yoga or meditation. Perhaps for you, it’s a walk in the woods, a bike ride or spiritual reflection. Reading a book or soaking in a bubble might be your ticket to relax. Whatever it is, make sure to make room for this type of restorative self-care – and that goes double for people in caretaker roles such as TJJD’s Youth Development Coaches, teachers and caseworkers. You must care for yourself to be able shoulder the care of others.
  • Hobbies and projects are another great way to ameliorate worries. But temper your expectations. You don’t need to sew a thousand masks for your neighbors or convert the backyard into a truck garden – unless that truly calms you down. Hobbies are meant to be enjoyed and help you refresh.

“Maintain a sense of hope, work to accept changes as they occur . . . don’t become overwhelmed by creating a life-changing list of things to achieve while you’re home,” according to advise from the Mayo Clinic. If that speaks to you, read more at the guide on COVID-19 and Your Mental Health.

  • Maintain connections. You may have to be more deliberative now, but it will help you emotionally to stay in touch with friends and relatives by phone or email or FaceTime. Ask your co-workers how they’re doing or take time to help someone in need.
  • Know when to ask for help for yourself. The Mayo Clinic guide reminds us that it’s normal to feel sad, angry, hopeless or afraid during times like these. You may experience changes in appetite, insomnia, body aches, difficulty concentrating or struggle to face chores (even more than usual). These physical manifestations of anxiety can be protective, prompting us to act cautiously in the face of danger. For example, the nervousness that kicks up over a visit the grocery reminds us to wear a mask and wash our hands.

    But when anxiety and fears become pervasive and uncontrollable, we need to pause and get help. “When these signs and symptoms last for several days in a row, make you miserable and cause problems in your daily life so that you find it hard to carry out normal responsibilities, it’s time to ask for help,” say the Mayo experts. Whether you call a friend or a helpline (see our list of helplines), asking for guidance is a step toward staying strong.
  • Seek help from a professional or online. While it’s always worth considering professional help, self-help resources online can be useful too. TJJD’s Community Mental Health Program Administrator Susan Palacios points to one highly readable handbook by the World Health Organization (WHO), “Doing What Matters in Times of Stress: An Illustrated Guide.”

Poster with illustrations about how to "get unhooked" from bad feelings and reduce your stress level.This comprehensive guide is all about “getting unhooked” from negative feelings and walks through several strategies for dissipating the stressful thoughts and feelings that drain the enjoyment from life and block positive engagement with others.

“I think this is a valuable guidebook because it offers an in-depth look at the ways people can experience stress in an easy to understand way,” Palacios said. “It also provides step-by-step instructions, including links to verbal instructions for auditory learners, to exercises designed to reduce stress and help individuals refocus or reground themselves when they are feeling their stress levels increase.”

“It is always a good idea to become more aware of how brains and our bodies respond to stressful situations, and to learn tools that can mitigate that stress,” said Palacios, a licensed clinical counselor. “Ideally, we can learn these skills when we are in a relatively calm and safe place, and then we can use what we have learned to get through the harder things that life can throw in our direction at times.”

Helping Children and Teens

We know that children absorb hurts and changes differently than adults. Parents and professionals working with children and young adults will want to think about how developing minds are processing the twists and turns of 2020.

Here are some resources for helping kids as they face the twin challenges of the pandemic and the 2020-2021 school year.

  • Mental Health America has created a Back to School Toolkit for 2020, a year we can all agree cries out for special guidance. The toolkit for caregivers and teachers notes that many children will be returning to school lonely, nervous and in need of extra attention.

MHA’s Helping at Home: Tips for Parents urges parents and caregivers to create calm settings, “check your tone” and listen carefully to help children break down and articulate feelings that are troubling them. “Frame your approach from a place of care and concern, not anger” to avoid blaming, which shuts down communication.

It explains that young children often feel they are to blame for events or household difficulties. Adults should let them know they’re not responsible; that sometimes bad things happen that are out of our control. While we can exercise personal responsibility in how we respond to it, the pandemic certainly falls into that category.

Parents and caregivers should:

  • Reassure children they are safe, despite the crisis
  • Keep calm (again!) -- they’re watching you for cues on how to react
  • Keep to routines because these buffer the chaos
  • Look for natural openings to invite conversation
  • Limit exposure to news media so it doesn’t overwhelm
  • Watch for signs of trauma, often kids seem OK at first
  • Let them play.

Supporting teenagers at this time calls for a tactical approach that’s well covered in this guide, Supporting Teenagers and Young Adults During the Coronavirus Crisis.

It addresses our new norms of social distancing and remote learning, which come with the added need for adults to talk with teens about their needs and also their role in society and how the contagion is spread, say psychologists.

While young children may feel scared and worried, teenagers may tack the opposite direction, feeling invincible and, because they are not in the highest risk category for coronavirus, have a hard time accepting the requirements to keep socially distant and not see friends.

Adults need to help them adjust and understand their responsibilities to others, said Dr. David Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “Our answer is that exposure to this virus is an exponential thing, and that it’s not really about (just) them,” Anderson said.  “It’s not really about the fact that they feel fine. It’s the fact that they could be asymptomatic carriers and they could kill others, including th6B17344B 18EB 44B9 BAE0 FB01576F583Ceir grandparents.”

That a stern message that can be tempered with an empathetic delivery and the active listening that’s always helpful with teens, who can be famously reticent about their feelings.

Listening cannot be emphasized too much, say experts, because teens, like everyone, are at greater risk of depression and drug and alcohol abuse at times of stress. Adults must be aware.

Finally, remember, whether you are feeling stuck, or you’re helping a young person who’s struggling, you are not alone.

One in 25 people experience serious mental illness each year and one in five struggle with mental health issues such as ADHD, PTSD, depression, unremittent anxiety and other diagnoses, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

That’s why NAMI adopted “You Are Not Alone” as its theme this year, a motto that turned out to be exquisitely prescient and relevant as the pandemic created circumstances -- social distancing, telework, quarantines – that crushed many avenues for staying connected.  

People already dealing with mental health issues may face an exacerbation and urgently need to know that they are not alone.

Here’s NAMI’s COVID-19 Resource and Information Guide to keeping healthy during COVID-19. You can find dozens of helpful articles and links to resources in this guide, which addresses the unique issues confronting people in all walks of life, including those in criminal justice institutions.

NAMI also created a unique webpage where people share their personal stories of surviving depression, chronic anxiety and other mental illnesses. People explain how they found peace, resilience and the emotional tools they needed to move beyond obstacles presented by life’s challenges compounded by mental health issues.

These vignettes weren’t collected just for 2020, but they sure hit the mark. May you find inspiration within them.