To get a better understanding of the issues mental health professionals have been seeing as the pandemic continues, the Jewish Light sat down with licensed social worker Nikki Rauner from Emotional Health Therapy in Clayton to ask her some questions.
As we enter year three of the pandemic, what are you seeing overall as its impact on people’s mental health?
What kinds of issues do you see among parents who have school-age children?
Parenting is an area that has become increasingly difficult since the pandemic. Parents are forced to work, as well as be home teachers when school is not in session, or kids are out for a quarantine. This leaves parents feeling an insurmountable amount of pressure to be a good parent, be a teacher, manage what class the kids should be in, and often the parent holds down their own job. Kids also feel the pressure from school, or their parent’s anxiety about school and work. These parents are less likely to have time for therapy, and so the anxiety bubbles over and can turn into a system of anxious people.
Anxiety can manifest in avoidance and shutting down, or yelling and aggressive behavior. This has been difficult for many family systems to manage, but this is also the point they reach out for help. This is a good thing, as sometimes there were challenges that existed prior to the pandemic, but the crisis allowed them to see what they need to work on to grow as a family.
Are you hearing the words “mental fatigue” and if so, what does that mean?
Mental fatigue refers to the idea that prolonged stress can create a larger mental health condition such as depression. Depression and anxiety can look like frustration, a lack of ability to enjoy the small moments. This can be very difficult for a family living with someone experiencing this. Mental fatigue doesn’t need to look like crying or sadness — it can also look like someone is frustrated and angry. The fatigue worsens when these behaviors trigger interpersonal conflicts.
Is any type of person or profession more likely to suffer “mental fatigue” than another?
Mental health spans socioeconomic, racial and cultural lines, and is impedes functioning in many ways. Mental health, much like physical health, needs to be proactively treated for the best outcomes. Unfortunately, the stigma around mental health keeps people from using therapy or psychiatry proactively.
Most people begin therapeutic relationships when they, or someone they love, is in crisis. Individuals who have anxiety, depression, bipolar or other mental health diagnoses in their family genetics might be more likely to experience mental fatigue because there is a genetic proclivity to mental health conditions.
Are you seeing any positives that you can share?
The pandemic has allowed therapy to be in person or virtual, which allows it to be more accessible for many ages. Our 65+ community is more likely to engage in therapy as their social outlets have been limited, or their loved ones put pressure on them to stay inside and not put themselves at risk.
The positive is that you have groups of people learning, reading, listening to podcasts on mental health, and that allows our community to better assess when someone should seek professional health. There is no shame in struggling, and the pandemic has given people permission to say they are struggling and reach out for help.
Do you have a sense of what may be the lasting mental health effects after the pandemic ends?
In my own experience, I can tell you that people are becoming more and more resilient every minute. The brain is malleable and it is rewiring every day. We refer to the concept of the brain rewiring as neuroplasticity, and this means that the brain has the ability to grow and reorganize as we are forced to think about things differently during the pandemic. As this happens, new pathways in the brain are being made.
Experiencing a global crisis like the pandemic, means that we can expect that people will come out of this more resilient, or at the very least, will challenge old ways of thinking. We have struggled as a universe: a lot of missed trips, long-distance breakups when travel was difficult, job environments transitioning from a social work environment to home with kids and spouses, or in isolation. People have lost loved ones with no funeral, or couldn’t visit a parent in a nursing home, and a lot of other potentially stressful, at-times devastating experiences.
`The result has been to get creative in finding connection. The brain learns to predict what each day will look like, but Covid took away our ability to predict what is next. The result is that we are teaching the brain to find new solutions.
The brain naturally adjusts and neural pathways can be made allowing humans as a whole to be more resilient — allowing people to have a higher tolerance for struggles. So this can look like moving through life’s struggles much more smoothly than we likely would have three years ago.
We are all impacted by COVID, and the mental health piece can be devastating and also very exciting when people move toward growth.