May 27 2020

Mental Health and the Pandemic: Navigating the Sea of COVID-19

By Emily Witt

“We have to be very honest with ourselves that while we’re in the same body of water, we’re not in the same boat. We’re all experiencing this pandemic, but we’re experiencing it in the context of the boat we had going into it.”

With this poignant analogy, Brooke Hathaway, a Program Manager at CASA of Travis County, set the stage perfectly for how we must approach conversations about mental health, the effects of COVID-19, and how we might heal as a community.

“We have to be very honest with ourselves that while we’re in the same body of water, we’re not in the same boat. We’re all experiencing this pandemic, but we’re experiencing it in the context of the boat we had going into it.”

It wasn’t something I’d thought of before when examining the collective trauma we’re all experiencing in the wake of COVID-19, and the reason I haven’t is that I, like many of us, am living through this pandemic in a boat that’s well-equipped for the waves, with plenty of life preservers and emergency rafts, should I need them.

I have food, safe and reliable shelter, emotional support, consistent relationships, healthy attachments, access to healthcare, and financial stability.

It’s likely that many of the people reading this have fairly sturdy boats to ride this out in as well. That is not the case for many of the children and families we serve at CASA, and as a result, the way we do our work has had to change as we drift in the ocean of COVID-19.

“We’re not able to make face-to-face contact, and there’s a lot that happens in our face-to-face visits. Our ability to assess safety is much more difficult. In general, there aren’t as many eyes on kids. We used to get a lot of good information from schools about how our children are doing behaviorally, emotionally, and academically, and we don’t have that now,” says Brooke.

“For kids in care who are already always living in a state of fight, flight, or freeze this is just compounding that tendency to stay in survival mode. We are already seeing an increase in behavioral issues, but we don’t have access to help children cope with this. Their caregivers are going through the same uncertainty,” she adds.

“For kids in care who are already always living in a state of fight, flight, or freeze this is just compounding that tendency to stay in survival mode."

The Role of Trauma

According to Training Specialist Ryan Broussard, a lot of the children and families we work with are already experiencing a myriad of mental health issues that are often onset by trauma.

“Most often what we see is that trauma is the umbrella for what’s causing anxiety disorders, like PTSD, as well as some behaviors. We also see a lot of ADHD diagnoses and anxiety disorders, but when you look at those symptoms, they’re the same as trauma. [For parents] it’s really the same, but their symptoms might be amplified because of a lack of available or consistent treatments. We can see substance abuse as a way of self-medicating. You can usually trace the roots [back to trauma].”

Now, take that individual trauma and add on the community trauma of a pandemic, as many endure the loss of stable income, the loneliness of social isolation, and the uncertainty we all feel.

Social Isolation and the Magnification of Mental Health Issues

“We’ve seen an increase in clients reporting anxiety, stress, and worry about the future. Social isolation has magnified that some clients have depression. We’ve seen an increase of mental health issues across the board,” says Seanna Crosbie, the Chief Program Officer at Austin Child Guidance Center, who gave us first-hand insight into the reality her organization is currently living with. One aspect is that many of their employees now work 10–12-hour days providing teletherapy for clients.

“We’ve seen an increase in clients reporting anxiety, stress, and worry about the future.”

The pandemic will undoubtedly compound mental health issues for many already experiencing them, and experts believe we’ll also see an onslaught of people seeking help for the first time in their lives.

“With people that don’t have a history of mental health issues, because of the economic impact, social isolation, and additional pressure for parents and families, I’ve seen folks who have never been in therapy or needed it who are having difficulty with ruminating thoughts, sleeping, eating, feeling lonely, and being isolated. This event within itself can absolutely trigger mental health challenges,” according to Seanna.

While therapists are working tirelessly to take care of their clients, that doesn’t mean that access to services isn’t a big hurdle for many of the people we serve to overcome.

In our current times, these obstacles can become even greater.

“While I think that we can be aware that there are new ways to access resources, we have to be mindful of individuals who don’t have wifi or laptops. We still need to be doing our vigilant work with people who can’t connect virtually,” states Ryan.

“Many families are struggling to meet basic needs like food, shelter, and financial stability. It is impossible for families to address trauma and mental health when they are dealing with the stress of basic needs not being met.”

Lack of technology is far from the only roadblock we regularly see—particularly in Travis County.

“For Spanish speakers, there’s a major lack of providers that speak Spanish. We also have a general lack of providers who accept Medicaid or are contracted with the department. And if they are, they don’t provide the specialized treatment that some parents, caregivers, or children might need. We also know that many families are struggling to meet basic needs like food, shelter, and financial stability and that it is impossible for families to address trauma and mental health when they are dealing with the stress of basic needs not being met,” says Brooke.

Brooke highlights something here that’s paramount to our understanding of COVID-19 and mental health: Communities of color are fighting different battles when it comes to accessing mental health resources, and COVID-19 has magnified this fact, as a recent Austin American-Statesman article highlights. 

“Access to resources for communities of color is a big piece of the issue, and this is rooted in racial disparities. It was there before, it will be after."

According to the Chair of CASA’s Equity and Inclusion Committee, Alejandro Victoria, “Access to resources for communities of color is a big piece of the issue, and this is rooted in racial disparities. It was there before, it will be after. But there’s also stigmatization within these communities, like people not wanting to go see a therapist or not believing that there’s an issue during this crisis."

"I think another barrier is that a lot of the families we serve that are also from communities of color use public transportation, so in a situation where you’re not wanting to be on a bus or public places, that becomes huge. Getting to services, getting to drug tests, getting to therapy—that’s already a challenge regularly, and even more so right now,” says Alejandro. 

But stigmatization and lack of resources aren’t the only ways in which communities of color are experiencing this pandemic differently, Lakinia Ramsey, our Diversity Recruitment Specialist points out.

“We’re all dealing with our own battles, but it looks different for everyone. I think people of color tend to have broader scopes of responsibility when it comes to family. Family is so important to us. It can be our way of coping.”

“We’re all feeling isolated, and we’re all dealing with our own battles, but it looks different for everyone. I think people of color tend to have broader scopes of responsibility when it comes to family. Since a lot of people live together, there’s a greater chance that they’ll get sick. And when we do get sick, healthcare, insurance, and finances all look different for us across the board. Even if I’m living in a different household, I feel a financial responsibility to my family. I think that isolation also hits us a lot harder. Family is so important to us. We’re so used to having that connection, and it can be our way of coping.”

“We need to recognize that everyone has a different vantage point that they’re coming from in terms of this pandemic. We have to bring diverse perspectives to the table. If you’re not talking to these communities, you’re really missing out on very valuable viewpoints,” Lakinia adds.

So, Where Do We Row From Here?

It’s incredibly easy to feel lost at sea—no matter what your boat might look like right now.

First, we must accept that life will look different for a long time, even after isolation.

“When we move out of isolation, for some people, it may increase their anxiety. There’s going to be a lot of worry about COVID-19 or losing a loved one. It’s important for parents to focus on creating safety. This is the cornerstone of trauma-informed care. Parents are encouraged to have conversations with their children about ways to create safety, which is likely different for every family,” Seanna states.

When it comes to creating that same safety for the children we serve at CASA, we have to start by being empathetic, as we “approach others with more curiosity than judgment,” says Ryan.

“We have to start by being empathetic. Approach others with more curiosity than judgment.”

This phrase is a favorite that we often use when training our CASA volunteers, and Brooke has wonderful ideas for how they can use the concepts we teach to help create healthy attachments for the kids they serve.

“This will be a great opportunity for volunteers to do a lot of Early Family Engagement and Family Finding work. That’ll be the first thing out of isolation—to find the people that support children the most. Maybe the kids will be able to go visit relatives once every few weeks and give mom a break. Once this is all over and CASA is able to visit again, we need to continue being creative with how we connect with kids. They may be used to having weekly contact now, so we have to be thoughtful about what contact should look like with the people that have supported them throughout this. Continuing to FaceTime with them might be a great thing.”

But it’s not just the job of parents, caregivers, and volunteers to create a sense of safety for children as we navigate these unchartered waters.

“I hope we’re lifting each other up. I hope we carry on this sense of thinking beyond ourselves. That’s more important now than ever.”

“I hope we’re lifting each other up, and really looking to one another to help support smaller businesses, individuals, and non-profits—just lifting up these communities in any way we can, whether that’s through our own voice or volunteer work. I would also just love it if we continue checking in with each other after this pandemic. I hope we carry on this sense of thinking beyond ourselves. At CASA, we’re very community-based and community-centered. That’s more important now than ever,” Alejandro says in closing.

In times of great strife, our lack of safety nets and the failure of the systems put in place to protect people become magnified. It’s easier than ever to see how marginalized groups have been left with boats that barely function in our country, and it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by that.

So let’s all stop. Take a collective deep breath.

And give yourself permission to focus on your own mental health. Take breaks when you feel overwhelmed, ask for help when you need it, and talk about your feelings with people that you trust.

Regardless of the boat we’ve been given, everyone in our society deserves to reach the shore.

We have to put on our own life jackets before we can be life rafts for each other.

May 2020 Advocacy

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