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What's The Mental Health Impact Of COVID-19?

Frances Duncan with Grass Roots Enrichment and Wellness Center for Children and Families and Positive Solutions Counseling, which serve as "a gateway to improved health, enrichment and development for all ages."
Jerry Kenney
Frances Duncan with Grass Roots Enrichment and Wellness Center for Children and Families and Positive Solutions Counseling, which serve as "a gateway to improved health, enrichment and development for all ages."

Here in Ohio, businesses are starting to open back up after weeks of being closed. Many people are getting back to work and, for some, it feels like the beginning of getting back to normal. But others believe that home and work life have been permanently altered because of COVID-19.

We still don't know all of the effects of the pandemic on our community’s mental health. How do we recover from an individual and a community tragedy? To find out, we contacted Frances Duncan, who has spent more than 25 years as a clinical psychotherapist.

Jerry Kenney: Frances, thanks so much for joining us today.

Frances Duncan: Thank you for having me.

JK: I'd like to start by talking about how unusual this pandemic has been. What are the types of trauma that people may be facing right now?

FD: Well, as you said, it's something we've never faced before and nothing increases anxiety more than uncertainty. And, we have all been affected individually and collectively and in terms of even just being able to meet basic needs. So there's a lot of fear, not just fear for our lives and the lives of our loved ones, but what's going to happen with our with the jobs and some people are getting called back to work now, but they don't have childcare because the daycares are just taking maybe nine kids in a group instead of 20 plus. So, that's been a dilemma, people concerned that they might potentially lose their jobs simply because they don't have anybody to watch their kids. Just the realities of that. People who may not have jobs to go back to, small businesses that may not reopen, you know, and trying to navigate systems that are broken, and I think maybe one of the positives of this is highlighting with those broken systems are and maybe some of that potentially changing.

But in terms of trauma, you know, I specialize in post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and this is affecting all of us. I think this is, you know, in terms of PTSD, we're all feeling some of that, you know, depression, anxiety, fearfulness, the uncertainty of what's going to happen next, not knowing if we're going to be in that group of people who are jobless, homeless, no income. It's a time of stress and fearfulness and high anxiety, of course.

JK: In your work since the pandemic started, how are people dealing with this crisis? Are people doing things differently than they have in the past, and in a different way?

FD: I think that most people and I'm thinking of, you know, my clients that I'm working with now and their families are taking it very seriously with the social distancing, the stay at home orders that they followed those orders the best that they could. One thing, too, though, is that your defense systems kick in psychological defense systems and denial is one of those. So, I think there's also some people who want to believe that it's okay to be out and about and not maybe be as cautious as some other person might think is important. And were each different and process it in different ways. And so then there's this kind of conflict that goes on among people in our society of ones who think masks a good idea. And ones who are like, 'no.'

JK: And so, people are handling the pandemic's effects to varying degrees. What if I feel upset, if I'm feeling sadness, frustration or even anger? Are these normal feelings?

FD: Certainly. So, I think we're all angry for different reasons. I think adults trying to deal with the unemployment system and just trying to get services that they qualify for. You know, the systems are broken and they're not getting... Many aren’t working and still have not gotten the first dollar from unemployment and they don't know what they're going to do. So, I think that coping is, it's happening and in terms of people are doing the best that they can. And, some people have some others for support and some people totally are isolated. I can think of a mother that has little kids and she has no family support and she's off work and so she's taking very good care of her kids, but she's not taking such good care of herself. And I think that that's really important as being the caregivers that we remember, that we have to be good to ourselves and practice self-care the best we can right now as well.

JK: We've been speaking with Frances Duncan, a clinical psychotherapist, about the COVID-19 pandemic and the mental health impacts on our community. Tomorrow, we'll ask about children specifically and the trauma they're experiencing.


Our conversation with Frances Duncan continues with a look at how children are being affected emotionally by the pandemic and what parents can do to help them cope.

Mental Health Series: Segment 2

JERRY KENNEY: Frances, children may not understand everything that's happening around them but they can be pretty perceptive. I know you have been working with some younger children through all of this. What kinds of emotions or feelings are they experiencing right now?

FRANCES DUNCAN: I think that there's a lot of fear, particularly with the younger kids, maybe, you know, six, seven-year-old children I'm thinking of right now who are having nightmares, and when I ask them what their nightmares are about, it's about "The Corona," as it seems to be called by children, multiple kids have used that term and "The Corona" coming and killing them, killing their families. And sometimes they are expressing concern, particularly for the grandparents because they've heard that in the discussions with their family or in the news that older people may have a more difficult experience or outcome with coronavirus.

So, they're not able to, in some families they're doing the social distancing even with grandparents. They miss their grandparents. They miss their friends at school. They miss their teacher kids being schooled at home, which for some that works well. For others it was not good at all. I can think of many kids who, their stress levels went up greatly because they needed that one-on-one or hands-on kind of school experience that online just didn't give them and some of them got way behind in the work and worried they were not going to be able to pass to the next grade. And even the kids that before this stay at home order happened where they couldn't go to school kids, they said they didn't like school so much, really missed the social interaction and missed their friends. And so it's been very difficult for kids.

JK: And how should parents talk to their kids about the pandemic? Are there ways to help them cope with this particular monster in the closet?

FD: Well, I think anytime you're talking with the child about something that's scary or something that's happening, that's traumatic, that it's important, to be honest. But, of course, use kid language and whatever the developmental age is of the child that you're expressing and in a way that is going to be calming and soothing and that they're going to understand it and you're being honest, but not increasing their fear. You know, parents are doing their best job right now of trying to ease those fears and let them know that they're gonna be safe and they're taking measures to keep them safe.

JK: You have talked about keeping as much structure in place for children as possible during difficult times, but that's been especially difficult right now. The news is changing very fast. In school learning has been suspended for months. Kids haven't been able to see their teachers and their friends. What are some of the most important ways to keep kids on track when the normal day-to-day isn't there anymore?

FD: Well, again, it's about structure. I know that even during the summer, now that school is out, there are parents who are still having their children do some schoolwork during the day and to put some of that structure in place and for them to continue to learn. I know that continuing their normal routine is important, and I'm thinking of a family that does family game nights every week as they did before the pandemic. They continue, they do that every week now, trying to give their kids enrichment experiences, but also having to be at home all the time. It's been a stressor for families and kids to be together so much. I mean, I've had kids say 'I can't stand this, I have to get away from my parents," and then parents saying, 'Oh, my God, I love them so much but...,' So it's been tough. It's been very tough.

And, I think that, you know... I always ask kids if they had any contact with their friends and some of them do, you know, have ways of social media texting or video chats or whatever it might be to be able to stay in touch with their friends. It's not the same, but providing them with those social needs and enrichment needs the best that you can, because kids, it's a part of their developmental growing and learning is that social contact.

JK: We've been speaking with Frances Duncan, a clinical psychotherapist, about the covered 19 pandemic and the mental health implications for our community. Tomorrow, we'll talk about our most high-risk population our seniors and the pandemic's effects on them and on the people who care for them.


We wrap up the conversation with a look at how the pandemic is changing the lives of our elders, who are at especially high risk from COVID-19. And we'll look at the ways in which all our lives may be changed going forward.

Mental Health Series: Segment 3

Jerry Kenney: Frances, what are some of the particularly difficult things older people may be going through right now?

Frances Duncan: Well, I know that people who have health challenges are at greater risk and it's, I think, maybe a little more frightening for people who are older or people who maybe are not older but have health challenges. And the isolation, you know, can be harder. I think if your life centers around your grandchildren or your kids and family and you can't do the typical things, the traditions, the birthdays, the holiday celebrations, just anything that's our normal traditional family kind of gatherings have been affected, which then further isolates people who are older and maybe can't get out as much anyway, because maybe some health challenges.

I think that if someone is in a nursing facility and that's been particularly challenging for families and for the people who are needing that level of health care, because the isolation is just, it has to be pretty unbearable. And knowing that you can't go visit your loved one when you know that they really need you and they're sick and need you even more now. So, I think that in in a sense, it's going to draw families together more in the long run. We're going to appreciate each other a lot more and realize how valuable those relationships are. We can get caught up in everyday life when things were, quote, the old normal and maybe take a lot of things for granted that we won't be taking for granted probably in the future.

JK: It can be very hard for people who care for their elders to deal with daily stresses in the best of times. If I'm an older caregiver, how can I keep calm, focused and positive through all of this?

FD: Any time you're a caregiver for those you love, it is a big challenge and you need a lot of support. And again, the self-care is extremely important. And self-care doesn't mean selfish. I think sometimes people mix those two up. There's a difference between selfish and self-care. And if you're going to be strong too, and healthy to help those you love and who depend on you, then it's super important to take good care of yourself. And I don't just mean physically, I think emotionally and physically.

But, as far as the importance of it and how do you do it? I think you do what you've been doing and with the limitations that you have now. Those who are caregivers are going to do everything they can to make sure the person they love is well and safe and as happy as they can be and connected. And that's what we have to get a little innovative and creative in how we can meet those same goals and needs now, with the limitations that we have.

JK: And I feel like I'm going to put you on the spot with this next question, but what's next for all of us? Are our feelings going to change as we continue through this crisis? Where do we end up as a community on the other side?

FD: Well, I'm an optimist, so I want to believe that this is highlighting all the broken systems and things that we need to have change within, and that those changes are going to be happening. And I think that as humans we're aware of how we're all connected and what we can do for each other.

JK: We have not only the pandemic crisis taking place in this country, but tensions are high due to a number of social and political factors today. This kind of raises the bar on the tension level for the American community as a whole and really the world community. How do people... how much can people take?

FD: Well, that's a really good question and I think that, while we are so challenged right now on every front, that there is a lot of positive change happening, too. I think the outpouring that you're seeing now - yes, it adds stress, it adds tension - but I think it also is energizing and it gives a lot of people hope that things are going to truly, truly change.

JK: We've been speaking with Frances Duncan, a clinical psychotherapist, about the COVID-19 pandemic and the mental health implications it holds for our community. Francis, thank you so much.

FD: Thank you.

Jerry began volunteering at WYSO in 1991 and hosting Sunday night's Alpha Rhythms in 1992. He joined the YSO staff in 2007 as Morning Edition Host, then All Things Considered. He's hosted Sunday morning's WYSO Weekend since 2008 and produced several radio dramas and specials . In 2009 Jerry received the Best Feature award from Public Radio News Directors Inc., and was named the 2023 winner of the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors Best Anchor/News Host award. His current, heart-felt projects include the occasional series Bulletin Board Diaries, which focuses on local, old-school advertisers and small business owners. He has also returned as the co-host Alpha Rhythms.
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