How Families Can Build Emotional Resilience During COVID-19

Date Posted

December 15, 2020


Linda Zamvil, MD

Linda Zamvil, MD

If you are feeling anxious these days, you are not alone. The pandemic, political climate, and issues of social inequality and racial injustice all bring stress and worry.

Families for Depression Awareness (FFDA) Clinical Advisory Board member Linda Zamvil, MD, spoke with our team recently about the added stressors families face as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and how family caregivers can help take care of their own mental health and the health of their families during these challenging times.

Dr. Zamvil is Medical Director of the Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, of Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley in Morrisville and Stowe, Vermont. She has also been at Massachusetts General Hospital since 1983 where she teaches and supervises psychiatrists in training in Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatry. She is triple board certified in child and adolescent psychiatry, adult psychiatry, and addiction medicine. Dr. Zamvil is also an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, teaching part-time. In her practice, she sees children, adolescents, and adults with complex psychiatric and medical problems and often works with multiple generations within families.

Families for Depression Awareness (FFDA): How is the current environment affecting the mental health of families and how have things changed since the start of the pandemic?

Linda Zamvil, MD (LZ): I see anxiety, anxiety, anxiety. It’s normal to feel anxious right now. Kids are anxious. Parents are anxious. Adults and children are looking for reassurance.

FFDA: What are your biggest concerns when it comes to the emotional wellbeing of families during the COVID-19 pandemic?

LZ: Less interaction socially, that’s a big concern. So much of what we’re doing does not allow for more intimate contact with others. Some sports are happening, but indoor classes and more creative pursuits such as art classes and theater don’t seem to be offered in person. We’ve lost the opportunity for more physical contact and the chance to be close to those outside of our immediate family.

There is a lot of fear of exposure in the school setting for kids, families, and educators. And if your kids are doing remote school, stepping in to be the educator or assist with virtual learning comes with its own challenges. Here where I live in rural Vermont, internet connectivity is not consistent. Not everyone has a smartphone, wi-fi, and high-speed internet access, making communicating with teachers and joining classes difficult.

In many families, older kids have come back home to quarantine, adding to the number of people in the household and affecting the family dynamic.

Many parents face work stressors as well, whether they are an essential worker on the front lines, afraid of losing their jobs, or trying to juggle the challenge of working from home with more distractions.

I see kids, parents, and grandparents in my practice. I would say everybody is in overdrive.

FFDA: How does all of this affect us physically and emotionally?

LZ: So, all of these factors stimulate the hormones that make you more anxious. Adrenaline and other chemicals trigger physical responses like sweating, hyperventilating, and headaches. Sleep habits are disrupted for many people at a time when extra sleep could really help. I see more and more people spending hours glued to screens, iPhones, televisions, and anything else that can help distract themselves from their worries.

We hear that many people, especially those who live alone or the elderly, are feeling very isolated. This is troubling because isolation and loneliness are linked to depression.

Substance abuse is escalating as well. We see more cases of alcohol abuse and marijuana use is way up.

FFDA: What advice do you have for parents who are struggling with their own mental health and also trying to support kids with mental health challenges right now?

LZ: With the families I see, I emphasize self-care. I encourage family caregivers to carve out even small windows of time for themselves and doing whatever works for them. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Meditate or do yoga through apps, a virtual class, or on your own.
  • Take a walk or a drive on your own.
  • Find some self-care you can do with your kids, like practicing calming breathing or dancing.
  • Create healthy routines and try to make these routines as regular as possible.
  • Spend time with animals and pets, from walking your dog to riding horses.
  • Find outdoor recreation activities you like such as hiking, biking, tennis, golf, skiing, snowshoeing, sledding…
  • Help create “electronics breaks” with offline activities that involve the whole family.

FFDA: What else can families do to strengthen their resilience and mental health in these tough times?

LZ: With the restrictions of the pandemic, it’s painful not to be able to interact with the people you care about most. We all need to empathize with one another and acknowledge how hard this is.

I urge people to try to be more patient and be understanding. Really listen to people. Try to see something that can give you a glimmer of hope. Be positive, we are going to get through this together.

Do the important basics, too: protect your sleep, exercise, eat well, and do not overuse alcohol or marijuana.

FFDA: Any final thoughts?

LZ: Suicide is a real concern for families right now, especially for those with teens or college students. Depression is the number one untreated condition, and nearly everyone will have some episode of depression in their lifetime. It’s important to keep checking in. I ask about suicide in every appointment I have with patients.

We need to destigmatize depression and bipolar disorder so that people can be better educated and understand how to cope and how to find the help they need. These are treatable conditions.

The other important message is that, as a parent, you shouldn’t be expected to manage something like this on your own. Reach out and get help for yourself, personally, as well as for your child or family member.

Parents and other caregivers can find information and support from FFDA along with primary care providers, school counselors, or clergy, as well as therapists, nurse practitioners, and psychiatrists. And, despite our rural internet issues, it’s much easier now to connect with others virtually, which makes resources, guidance, and professional care more accessible.

Above all, it’s incredibly important not to be alone and isolated, especially now. Reach out and make the connections that will help your mental health and wellbeing.