Coping with a pandemic
Visiting Professor of Psychology Nakia Hamlett discusses mental health in the time of quarantine.
Connecticut College: Aside from teaching, you are a psychologist who specializes in child, adolescent and young adult mental health. How have you been making it through this difficult time?
Professor Nakia Hamlett: It’s challenging. It’s interesting. It’s anxiety-provoking. I try to limit my intake of news, because I got to a place where it didn’t seem helpful to watch all the time.
CC: What are some coping mechanisms students, faculty and staff should consider if struggling during the pandemic?
NH: Self-care is critically important. Broadly speaking, self-care is anything that promotes your sense of having some control and feeling good. Getting plenty of rest, eating well and getting exercise are all important, as well as my personal favorites, meditation and mindfulness. Self-care also means connecting with significant others, online if you can’t be with them in person (while keeping six feet apart).
CC: What about for those who are living with others and have less control over the mitigation of risk factors?
NH: It can be good to agree on household rules: communicate about who will be leaving the house and how often during the pandemic, and what sorts of procedures you should have in place for managing risk once somebody returns to the house. Naturally, this planning can create some anxiety, but establishing routines will ultimately lead to stronger feelings of control and security. Finally, we all need to remember that this situation will improve. It’s a matter of diligently and patiently waiting this out as best we can.
CC: No person is an island. How can we reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness now that we can’t gather with those outside our household?
NH: I’m a strong believer in practicing mindfulness in combination with other tools that can help combat thoughts that make people feel bad. Focusing attention on joyful activities and memories, and spending time on passion projects that you suddenly have more time to complete are great ways to get out of your mind and stay busy with life. Also, watching TV shows that are more lighthearted, funny or interesting is another way to distract from the constant dialogue in your mind. Given that we’re all living through a real-life trauma, avoiding dark shows that focus on disturbing or stressful topics is probably a good idea. In general, anxiety and depression thrive when we give our attention to fearful or depressing thoughts. So the more we learn to focus our attention and distract ourselves, the less intense these symptoms can be.
CC: What behaviors should people look for, both in themselves and among friends, family and coworkers, that could be a signal that mental health treatment should be sought?
NH: Depression is a complex and insidious disease that can wax and wane over the course of somebody’s life. Some people suffer from constant low-grade depression or experience an acute episode of depression that comes on suddenly.
Symptoms to look out for are feeling tired or listless, no longer enjoying activities that you previously enjoyed, increased isolation from other people, and even talking more about feelings of helplessness or suicidal thoughts. Many of those thoughts and feelings can easily go unnoticed by others if they’re not verbalized.
In acute cases, when somebody stops engaging in basic life activities, expresses suicidal thoughts or suggests they might have a specific plan for harming themselves, they may need to seek emergency resources. But for friends, family and other supportive people in the life of anybody who is suffering from depression, it’s important to continue being supportive, empathetic and available, but also realize that those efforts won’t magically change how somebody in a dark emotional space thinks or feels overnight.
Still, if you know somebody suffering from severe depression, don’t ever give up on getting them the help and support they need, even if they threaten to end your relationship. They’ll thank you later.
CC: Past national or global tragedies and challenges like the Great Depression have defined the philosophies and mental health of entire generations. What can we do now to proactively combat the long-term consequences of the trauma we’re experiencing during this outbreak?
NH: Illness and death caused by the virus, as well as the economic fallout, are going to produce traumatic aftershocks that persist for months or even years to come. Most important, we should be thinking of ways we can help within our local communities or on a national level. Families will need support, workers will need jobs, communities will need resources, and engaging in those types of positive efforts to rebuild and help others is a potent way to build agency and feel empowered. We’re already seeing stories of people all around us sharing resources and helping each other. I expect that will continue for months and will play a key role in helping us heal both individually and as a country.
I also believe that it’s helpful to think about some of the positive developments that can still come out of this crisis. For one thing, many of us will reconnect with family and friends in more meaningful ways than we have in years. We’re also harnessing the promise of new technology and finding innovative ways to do our work. This is also causing parents to develop a greater appreciation for teachers and will lead to more collaboration between parents and their childrens’ teachers in the future.
So, despite the fact that this is a traumatic event that will have lasting memories, like generations before us who have lived through catastrophic times, this will build a legacy of resilience, humility and renewed confidence and optimism.
CC: You’ve researched mental health disparities and challenges unique to minority and underserved populations. How are those communities fairing during this crisis?
NH: I hope this time causes us to rethink what and who we value with the assumption that everybody deserves health and life’s basics. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but unfortunately our systems and communities do. Our systems are fundamentally flawed, and a crisis like this highlights those flaws, such as when poorer communities that are disproportionately black and LatinX don’t have access to the resources they need to combat the virus and its physical and mental health impacts.
CC: How do young people process trauma, anxiety and stress differently than older people?
NH: Young adults are developmentally different. We know the frontal lobe is not fully developed until around the age of 25, so young adults are likely processing these events differently. My experience so far with my students is that they’re less vocal about their anxiety, even if they are perhaps nervous about the virus. And it’s important to remember that the age group that has seen the largest increase in mental health services in recent years has been the 18-to-25-year-old group. Students are struggling with depression, anxiety, sexual assault issues, domestic violence and other potentially traumatic events. We all need to understand that for young adults already contending with such difficulties, the pandemic may be creating even greater difficulties for them right now.
CC: What role will young adults play after this pandemic passes?
NH: Our students and young adults everywhere will be essential to rebuilding our communities and recovering from this crisis. They’re the harbingers of hope in our culture, as they’re activists, scholars, computer scientists and techies who know how to build communities.