Mental health during a pandemic

This piece was written in August 2020 for my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It was published on in Janaury 2021 after it had been graded.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

The pandemic has caused a greater level of fear and anxiety for a lot of people across the world. It therefore is unsurprising that children are also suffering with their anxiety and mental health, in a world that has completely changed overnight for them. Speaking to experts in mental health, I have compiled some advice and warning signs to look out for in both you and your small child, though lots of the tips are useful for all of us to ensure our mental health doesn’t suffer.

What are some of the warning signs your mental health is suffering too much, causing you to not function properly?

The main warning sign is that you aren’t coping with everyday tasks, suggesting the pandemic has taken over your mind and rational thoughts. It might be causing panic attacks or what feels like physical pain, or even an uncontrollable sadness. You may have trouble sleeping, struggle to get up in the mornings or eat excessively or too little.

Bethany Twite, from the charity Mind in Norfolk and Waveney explains some warning signs you might notice: “With any mental health issue, it can be really individual to the person and come on at any time. Specifically to do with the pandemic itself, some examples are excessively worrying and obsessing about statistics, washing hands far too frequently (for example every half an hour), making them unnecessarily sore, wanting to talk about coronavirus constantly, steering conversations back to it, having the news on a loop, avoiding people at all costs regardless of social distancing and feeling overly panicked when you do come into contact with someone.

“Unfortunately, we cannot control our reaction mentally to the pandemic, but we can establish what balance looks like for us and the children around us. It is important to know what keeps you in a mentally well place and remember that doesn’t mean feeling ecstatic all the time, but a place where you can cope with everyday life and tasks, it might take a while to know exactly what a mentally well place looks like for you and you might need help to find it from a medical professional,” adds Bethany from Mind.

What should you do if you spot the warning signs in yourself?

“Utilise any support networks you have and be honest with someone when you are struggling. This can be a family member, friend or medical professional. Think of ways you can still do the things that help keep you in a mentally well place, even during the pandemic. For example, if you don’t have a garden, go to a friend’s or a park and sit in a green space,” says Bethany from Mind.

Knowing intricate details about the pandemic also isn’t necessary, so think about turning the news off and taking a social media break. “It can be easy to see people’s highlight reel on social media and feel inadequate so come off it until you are in a more positive head space,” adds Bethany.

Try Practicing mindfulness, which doesn’t have to mean meditation, just being present in the moment of each task you do. Yoga teacher, Claire Thomas, who runs classes in Hebden Bridge on health and anxiety, explains an element of Karma Yoga: “A good way to get in the moment is to add the principle to really mundane tasks. I always tell my students to do the washing up but concentrate really hard on every aspect of it. If your mind starts to wander, bring it back to the task. You can even explain out loud each step as you go, filling up the bowl, adding fairy liquid and so on. It is a really great start to mindfulness that isn’t as easy as it sounds, as to begin with your mind will keep wandering off to your anxious thoughts.”

If you did hypnobirthing for the birth of your child, try playing the tracks again and fall asleep listening to the audios. Remembering how well you got into a state of mindfulness for birth might help ease your anxiety levels.

Also take time for yourself. This can be something as small as going for a walk with a friend, taking a hot bubble bath undisturbed or dedicating an hour to get lost in a book. If going shopping in a mask is adding to your anxiety, switch to home deliveries for food shopping and make the most of the online sales from the comfort of your own home.

Maria Foy, a blogger from New Zealand who runs the blog “Happy Mum Happy Child” on Instagram, with over 70 thousand followers, said: “Every person is so different when it comes to mental health issues with different symptoms. Being aware of who you are helps to identify the signs. For me it is making sure I am looking after my basic hygiene and eating well, not necessarily healthily, just well as junk food really impacts my mental health.”

What are the warning signs to look out for in your child?

Professor Tamsin Ford, a psychologist and expert in her field from Cambridge University, explains: “Warning signs can include changes in behaviour, distress and generally not coping with ordinary activities as they did before.”

As with ourselves, anxiety and fear of the pandemic can present itself in different ways depending on each child, but can include signs such as a child going into themselves and being uncharacteristically quiet, disturbed sleeping patterns, lashing or acting out, being overly sensitive or emotional, being very clingy and not wanting to leave your side and lying devious behaviour. Generally, if they are not themselves and displaying unusual behaviours out or the ordinary.

 Like adults, they also might be obsessing over details of the pandemic, fear leaving the house or coming into contact with people.

What to do if you spot the warning signs in your child?

Try not to panic. Professor Ford advises: “The important thing is to not try and brush off the child’s feelings. Lots of us are a bit scared but think through what the risks are and also what you can do about them and discuss it with your child.

“Children are very unlikely to catch the virus and less likely to be very ill if they do. Explain to them they can make this risk even smaller by washing their hands thoroughly and more often and wearing a mask when in crowded enclosed places.”

Both Bethany from Mind and Professor Ford recommend getting outside in a non-crowded place as it can do wonders for everyone’s mental health. It can also help remind the child that it isn’t all negative in the world right now. Practicing social distancing is much easier large outdoor spaces too so it might help a child who is anxious to leave the house to start in the countryside.

Getting mindfulness into your child’s routine is also as important as getting it into your own. Instead of a task like the washing up as recommended for mothers, get them to talk you through each step of painting a picture or take them on a nature walk, concentrating on every step and bug you find.

“I think the lack of social contact has had a big impact on young children, so even Facetiming their grandparents and friends regularly can really lift their mood,” says Bethany.

Though it’s just a bit of fun, in our house we always do highlights and lowlights of our day at teatime where we each say what the high point of the day was as well as the low point. This could be extended into more of a feelings circle, similar to what my son was doing at school when he returned after lockdown. It can be a chance for everyone to voice their thoughts.

What to do about negative behaviour in your child?

Professor Ford recommends parents look at The Incredible Years Program for parents and teachers. This is an online program looking at behaviour with accompanying books, developed by Carolyn Webster-Stratton, a licensed Clinical Psychologist. A lot of schools are looking to implement the program into their teaching in September, anticipating that children’s mental health is likely to have suffered after such a prolonged period off school, resulting in negative behaviour.

“Try to repair the positive time and picking your battles but be clear about what you want the child to do and what will happen if they don’t and then follow through,” adds Professor Ford.

The Incredible Years Program also recommends that parents put aside at least 20 minutes of special time a day. “During the special time, the child sets what they do with the parent. This special time happens regardless of what has happened that day as it focuses on strengthening the relationship. When behaviour deteriorates, the parent often withdraws in frustration and then if the only time the child gets attention is by behaving badly, this encourages bad behaviour,” explains Professor Ford.

It is really important to be very specific with the child about what you want them to do and link the behaviour to consequence, for example a star chart with stickers on. “Instead of telling a child to be good, it is much better to be very specific. If shopping, give them specific instructions like hold on to the shopping trolley the whole way around the supermarket,” adds Professor Ford.

Finally, Professor Ford recommends ignoring some low level behaviours and instead distract the child onto something else rather than always telling them off. “Praise them explicitly when they do what is asked of them, we forget how reinforcing adult attention it,” says Professor Ford.

Top 5 websites to visit

The Incredible Years Program there are lots of resources on the website, you can also order the book or order it through Amazon.

MindEd The website has resources for parents, including a specific section on supporting children during the pandemic.

The NHS website This has information for parents on services they can access for their children.

YouTube A guided meditation for children. There are lots of different videos on mindfulness to try.

The Dare Method. There is also a book you can purchase which takes you through steps to get through anxiety including audio tracks for grownups.

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