Pandemic creates mental as well as physical challenges
Note: May is Mental Health Month. COVID-19 has not only threatened people’s physical health but their mental health. For some, the pandemic has intensified existing conditions such as anxiety and depression and for others, it has created new mental health challenges. These are individual stories of hope and resiliency and examples of how people coped and managed their mental health during a pandemic.
“You’re taking care of your body and mind, and it’s one and the same”
Rachel Auten found out she was expecting again in mid-May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. She had had a miscarriage in January 2020, soon before the pandemic.
“That was incredibly hard and devastating for us. Then the pandemic hit, which was scary and overwhelming. But we wanted to start our family,” Rachel said. “When we found out we were pregnant the second time, it was still very overwhelming to be in that state during the pandemic, but we were thrilled and excited.”
The week before Christmas 2020, Rachel was eight months pregnant. Her husband, Jared, had been feeling “off” and went to see his primary care doctor. That same day, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and three days later, on his 28th birthday, he had surgery. Within two weeks of his diagnosis, he started chemotherapy.
“Once he started chemo his immune system was extremely compromised so we were completely isolated out of fear that if he got any illness especially COVID it could be pretty devastating,” Rachel said.
And overwhelming. Especially for someone in the later stages of her pregnancy.
“For me, I was kind of in survivor mode. I kind of went numb because I knew I just had to get through this time. I had to have this baby and take care of her and I had to take care of Jared. At 39 weeks pregnant, I was the one having to do everything with our household,” Rachel said. “We couldn’t really be around other people because of Jared’s immune system. He couldn’t go out. I was doing everything from the grocery shopping to the cleaning to walking the dog, at 39 weeks pregnant, and working full time.”
Nothing about this was the way Rachel had pictured her pregnancy would go.
“Jared couldn’t come to any of my appointments. He didn’t get to be there for the sonograms and to hear the heartbeat. Those were some big, exciting moments that he had to miss out on, and I had to experience alone,” she said. “You want your partner there for those moments. So that was difficult.”
At the end of January, Rachel went into labor and drove herself to LMH Health. Jared was already there for a chemotherapy treatment.
“While in labor, I walked myself down to oncology to tell Jared we were having a baby today and then walked myself up to labor and delivery and checked myself in,” Rachel said. “I went through four or five hours of labor by myself. But then he got to come up for the really intense part, so that was good.”
Their daughter, Maris, was born shortly after 9 p.m.
“It was all very scary and overwhelming but we’re also very grateful for the oncology team and the treatment Jared received,” Rachel said. “The LMH staff were amazing. We have nothing but great things to say about every person we interacted with there.”
Rachel, Jared and Maris are all doing well now. But for Rachel and Jared, the experience of being pregnant and delivering a baby during a pandemic, as well as dealing with a cancer diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy was difficult not just physically but mentally.
“We are in this field and we know resources and all of that, but I will still say it was completely overwhelming,” Rachel said. “It was an eye-opening experience for us and a reminder of how difficult mental health challenges can be.”
Jared is the training coordinator for Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ, formerly Headquarters. Rachel is director of student support and case management, which is an office under the umbrella of Student Affairs at the University of Kansas.
“Coming from the field, we knew when we needed to ask for help,” Rachel said. “It also really helped to have people reach out and ask what we can do. That’s something I will reiterate, if you’re in a place where you’re OK, make sure you are reaching out and checking in on others. It can be a really courageous act to ask for help and not always possible. It makes a world of difference when someone is reaching out to you.”
Through her role at KU, before she went on maternity leave Rachel saw students’ mental health struggles increase because of the pandemic as well as because of the death of George Floyd and ongoing racial injustice.
“The events of last summer and the ongoing racial injustice and violence perpetuated against black and brown people certainly impacted our students,” Rachel said. “We had students reaching out to our office not only dealing with the pandemic and academic and financial stress, but also the stress of the racial injustice and violence as well.”
In her conversations with students, Rachel tries to normalize mental health.
“It’s very much normalizing their experience, letting them know they are not alone. One approach I always take is equating mental health to physical health: there’s no difference,” Rachel said. “You’re taking care of your body and mind, and it’s one and the same.”
“One of the things I think is super important is normalizing mental health”
Kris Rawls is a Bert Nash Center WRAP (Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities) therapist. WRAP is a partnership between the Bert Nash Center and Douglas County schools. Kris has been a WRAP therapist at Baldwin Middle School since fall 2019.
In early March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
“We were on spring break when the pandemic started, and we didn’t come back full time until after spring break the next year,” Rawls said.
When the pandemic happened, Kris and other WRAP therapists and school social workers started reaching out to students and families they had been working with.
“It was a chaotic time for those first few weeks,” Kris said. “We had to be persistent with reaching out. There was a concern that students may fall through the cracks. Mostly, because it’s hard to communicate with students when they are at home.”
Kris has seen students’ mental health suffer through the pandemic.
“I do believe that things have been exacerbated due to the pandemic,” Kris said. “I’ve seen a higher number of crisis situations and severe mental health diagnoses. In terms of risk assessment, that number has gone up this year. In terms of hospitalizations, that number has gone up this year.”
Besides the stress of the pandemic, racial injustice and violence against people of color during the same time also affected students’ mental health.
“Where I am in Baldwin, although there is not as much ethnic diversity there is a lot of economic diversity. But if you were to speak with students who are from African American descent or any other minority, it was something that was certainly on their minds. When it was going on, it was discussed even more so than the pandemic,” said Kris, who is Black. “Watching the video of George Floyd was traumatic for a lot of people I spoke with. It left a lot of people scared. It was a traumatic experience for them.”
The death of a Baldwin student by suicide in April has also been traumatic for students and the entire community.
“The mourning process is more intense in a smaller community because everyone knows each other,” Kris said. “It has impacted the entire community, which mourns the loss of this student. The entire community, at the same time, wraps their arms around the family in situations like this. But the community is still grieving.”
Kris said it is important to have conversations about mental health.
“One of the things I think is super important is normalizing mental health. It sounds maybe a little cliché, but I think it definitely starts in the home. However, going beyond the home, it also goes to the community and how we talk about mental health. We need to talk about it in terms of wellness. And, in order to be completely well, we need to be well physically as well as mentally.”
It can be difficult for people to reach out for help, perhaps more so for men who may see it as a sign of weakness.
“Culturally speaking, I believe showing strength has, in some way, operated as a protective factor for many men with stereotypical masculine characteristics,” Kris said. “Things such as resiliency, perseverance, and responsibility are things that could be learned from such a quality, and it can support you through some tough moments. However, where our society falls short is helping our men understand that being vulnerable is also a sign of strength, and not a sign of weakness. The strength that it takes to be honest about your circumstances and to reach out for support is a way of being resilient, persevering, and taking responsibility for your wellness. It is not only OK for men to reach out for help, but also, in fact, very powerful, especially to that person's family and community.”
“I had to say, hey, you’re human, you have to ask for help, too”
Elena Theresa, who is part of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma and works for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, helped out at the last mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic on April 28 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. She wore traditional Native American regalia in honor of her grandfather Burgess Tapedo.
Burgess, who was part of the Kiowa Tribe, died July 22 from COVID-19 complications. He was 88.
“Here was a man who was in three branches of the military, who had fought cancer and was in remission, and was doing really well, and then to have something like this happen,” Elena said. “It was really sad to see him so helpless and so defenseless. It was really upsetting and to know that there are people in this country and globally still dying from it every day.”
The family had safely gathered for her grandfather’s birthday in June. Elena said it was probably a month or so after that when her grandfather became sick.
“We would drop things off for him. We would go in wearing masks. But we couldn’t spend some time with him,” Elena said.
When her grandfather was hospitalized and intubated, family members said their goodbyes over Zoom.
“It’s really upsetting that that’s how it ended and that’s how we had to say goodbye,” Elena said. “It was awful saying goodbye over Zoom. I don’t think anyone should ever have to do that. COVID hasn’t given the world a chance to grieve, because we’re still in it.”
Elena and her 3-year-old daughter were living with her parents when the pandemic started.
“We were living in an intergenerational household where I had a 3-year-old and then my parents who are both in their 60s and how do we keep everybody safe,” Elena said. “It really put things in perspective and taught me how to lighten my load and prioritize and to also ask for help, which is something I don’t like to do.”
Elena, who is a breastfeeding peer counselor for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said asking for help was hard but it was important for her own mental health.
“Here I am helping other people, but I also had a hard time asking for help. I had to say, hey, you’re human, you have to ask for help, too,” she said.
Elena was attending classes at Haskell Indian Nations University when the pandemic happened, and she ended up withdrawing from her classes.
“I withdrew at the peak of my stress. I thought I could ride this out and be miserable or I can withdraw, and I can be present at home and do virtual work and help and clean and play with my daughter. It was a tough choice, but I felt a sense of relief,” she said.
Elena plans to return to school at some point. For now, she is focused on taking care of her daughter and keeping her family and her community safe. And honoring her grandfather.
“It was really important for me to be there at the vaccine clinic and wear that skirt. It makes me feel strong. When I’m at a powwow or dressed in my outfit, I don’t feel any more beautiful in anything else. I don’t feel like my true authentic self in anything else. I feel powerful,” she said. “So, to be there and to equip my community with this vaccine, I thought about him, my grandfather, the pillar of this family, who protected this country and who protected our family, I felt like I was honoring him by trying to protect my community as well.”
“It’s helpful when people talk about mental health and de-stigmatize it”
Before Amy Carrillo was diagnosed for the first time with the coronavirus in March 2020, she was a healthy and active person.
“I thought I wouldn’t get COVID and if I did get it, that it wouldn’t be a big deal. But when I did get sick, I wasn’t prepared for how horrible it was and that it didn’t get better, that it kept getting worse,” she said.
Amy has had long-hauler symptoms since she was diagnosed the first time. She was diagnosed with COVID for the second time in December 2020. She has never been hospitalized but she has gone to the emergency department twice since having COVID.
“For me, long-haulers has meant my symptoms have continued since March (of 2020), and I’ve had new symptoms come on during the past year,” she said. “I didn’t get my smell or taste back for four or five months. My lungs hurt really badly for three or four months. I would think it’s over and then the symptoms would come back. My brain fog has been horrendous. I was a voracious reader. I would two or three books at a time every week. I think I’ve read under 10 books in the last year, maybe five. I can’t even think about reading for months at a time. It was really hard to think of words for a long time. Really tired, every few days I still get just crushingly exhausted and have to go to bed.
“I was an athlete, but it was really hard to work out. I can finally go for walks every day,” she said. “For months, I could hardly walk around the block without having to stop. I’ve only been able to run a handful of times. I was used to pushing myself but every time I exert myself it usually sets me back for weeks at a time.”
Her mental health also suffered.
“I definitely developed anxiety and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from it. Nights were really scary for me because that’s when I couldn’t breathe and sleep. I was so tired, but I had insomnia and I couldn’t sleep,” Amy said. “You almost feel gaslit too because at the same time I am dealing with all this other people are doing their own lives and doing fun stuff or I felt gaslit by people who didn’t believe in COVID or were anti-mask. I’ve lost significant friendships because I didn’t feel like they were being compassionate toward my reality. The anxiety and the PTSD were really hard and then you couple that with losing your identity. The two most important things in my life, besides my family and friends, who I couldn’t be around, were reading and running and I couldn’t do either of those, the things that gave me solace. You feel like you lose yourself. I felt like this shell of a person.”
Thanks to the support of family and friends as well as therapy, Amy was able to start to feel more like herself again, both physically and mentally.
“You know they say that when you’re sick people come out of the woodwork or people you don’t even know, that was definitely true for me. The love and support I got from our community and from friends and family was amazing,” Amy said. “Jay Pryor was doing Zoom coaching calls twice a week and that was a life-saver for me just to get on and connect with people. That was my lifeline.
“I got back into therapy when I could, which was super helpful. I’ve had depression in the past. I took medication to help me sleep and for anxiety and depression, and I continue to, and I continue to go to therapy,” Amy said. “It’s helpful when people talk about mental health and de-stigmatize it.”
“Let’s talk … but also let’s listen”
From her role as an after-hours screener for the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, as well as in her own private counseling practice, Namaste Manney has seen an increase in people’s anxiety and depression because of the pandemic.
“People are recognizing it more in themselves because of the increased isolation and the stress of worrying about exposure to COVID and not being able to have the same amount of activities and distractions that people used to have when you could more readily go out and do social things,” she said.
Namaste’s private practice, Silver Lining Consulting, saw a surge in requests for therapy, due to pressures people were feeling as a result of the pandemic.
“What I noticed with my current caseload and with the new people coming in that there appeared to be more stress, more restlessness, more difficult sleeping, and increased agitation,” Namaste said. “Some of my younger clients have experienced weight fluctuation and difficulty with attention span. We can forget how much children need those in-person interactions and how much of that social-emotional development needs to be happening but really isn’t because activities have been cut out and their exposure to other people has been mostly through video.”
Namaste said Mental Health Month is a reminder that it is important for people to have conversations about mental health.
“Having those conversations, one-on-one, within families, in schools,” she said. “Not only does mental health need to be talked about, but we need to listen. Like with adolescents and teens, who’s listening to them? Who is taking them seriously when they say that they are struggling and how can we support them better? Let’s talk … but also let’s listen.”
Anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or 785-841-2345.
Jeff Burkhead is the communications director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.