The COVID-19 pandemic has redefined our daily lives. Our new normal involves juggling working at home (or putting in long hours on site for our essential workers), remote learning, and keeping up with our household routines, all while isolating from our social groups.
How can parents do it all and still recharge their mental health? Experts at SolutionHealth, which includes Elliot Health System in Manchester and Southern New Hampshire Health in Nashua, say it’s all about balance.
Research from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), shows 1 in 10 women in the United States experience depression. Large national surveys found lifetime prevalence rates for anxiety disorders were 30.5% for women and 19.2% for men.
Sarah Rocha, MD, a psychiatrist at Elliot Health System, says increased stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic may worsen an existing problem or precipitate new-onset mental health problems. “The pandemic and response to it have led to more stress and worsening mental health, as well as more responsibilities for parents. There have been some research studies published that indicate much of the increased work is being done disproportionately by women,” Dr. Rocha says.
Women who are pregnant or postpartum are also facing unique challenges, as isolation from support may increase the risk for postpartum depression, and concerns about health and safety can be particularly debilitating for women with anxiety in the postpartum period.
Michelle Gardner, RN, Unit Director of Behavioral Health at Southern New Hampshire Health, says, “For some women managing their behavioral health challenges has led to substance use. In some cases, overwhelming fear and worry about themselves and those around them can cause thoughts of suicide.”
Symptoms of depression can include the following:
- Feelings of sadness
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Poor motivation
- Trouble with focus
- Suicidal ideation
- Moving slower or quicker than usual
- Appetite changes
Symptoms of anxiety can include the following:
- Sleep disturbance
- Appetite changes
- Difficulty separating from caregivers
- Moments of intense fear
- Trouble with focus
Other symptoms include headaches, gastrointestinal difficulties, excessive sweating, increased urination, and muscle tightness.
To help women take care of themselves and maintain healthy behaviors during this pandemic, both experts agree women should manage expectations, practice saying “no,” and foster self-compassion.
“How women managed their life before the pandemic may influence how they manage their new life during the pandemic. Having healthy coping skills is imperative to building resilience and caring for yourself,” Gardner explains.
Women can do this by taking a break and letting go of guilt, celebrating all accomplishments, prioritizing and being creative in multi-tasking, creating a schedule, communicating and collaborating, and carving out time for themselves for both their physical and mental health.
“When working with families, I often reference those safety instructions on an airplane flight to put your own oxygen mask on first. You aren’t much help to anyone if you are unconscious! In order to care for others, your own needs must be met,” Dr. Rocha says.
Women should also recognize the signs and symptoms of behavioral health changes, know the facts about how to stay protected from COVID-19, and avoid excessive alcohol and drug use.
“As a mother with school-age children and an essential full-time employee, finding a ‘new’ balance has had its challenges and rewards. I think that it is important to remember that we are not in this alone—we are all in this together. This creates opportunities for people to draw on their strengths, find new coping skills, and seek support when needed,” Gardner explains.
Their biggest reminder to women: don’t wait if you need help. There are resources available through various means such as crisis lines, local providers, and emergency services.
“If you are experiencing worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or any other mental health problem, reaching out to a health care provider is a sign of strength and maybe the best thing you can do for yourself and for your family,” Dr. Rocha says.