The Mercer Island School District (MISD) hosted a webinar Wednesday, May 20, to discuss mental health and mindfulness with local students and their families.
The webinar, organized through Zoom, was the second part of MISD’s “Fireside Chat” series, which seeks to remotely support students and their families as they navigate the effects of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
Three panelists spoke: Beth DeGrace, assistant director of MISD Special Services; Simone Carmel, psychologist for West Mercer Elementary; and Karen Wilke, psychologist for Northwood Elementary. Participants asked questions throughout the webinar via the Zoom app’s chat option.
Before the discussion, a video introduction was presented by Carmel about mindfulness, specifically how to be mindful when things feel out of control. It illustrated the difference between being mindful and “mind full” — fundamentally being compassionate toward yourself and others versus being overwhelmed with thoughts.
Carmel noted in her presentation that when you’re a parent supporting a student, it’s crucial first to manage your emotions and behaviors to demonstrate to a child how they can healthily manage their emotions and behaviors. The webinar then moved to the panel.
“We are in this uncharted territory where we’re almost having to change our identities, if you will,” DeGrace said. “We’re working from home. We’re homeschooling kids and working full time. We are shifting, we’re pivoting, we’re changing — all of these things are happening.”
Carmel said although the scenario brought on by the pandemic is stressful, a silver lining comes from the reality that it can potentially strengthen relationships.
“It is an opportunity, as stressful as it is for some people, to reevaluate things — relationships, playfulness with your kids…it’s just rich with opportunities,” she said.
A participant brought up how the current climate is pushing people to make changes at a more rapid rate. There might be, for example, an increased amount of all-or-nothing thinking, like pulling kids out of school. The participant wanted to gauge how normal it was to be thinking in extremes.
“I always recommend not making decisions out of fear,” said Carmel, noting the importance of being aware of anxieties motivating decisions and giving yourself space to reflect before acting.
“When we get stressed, you sort of get activated and feel fearful, or defensive or reactive,” Wilke added. “That’s a protective factor. But if we make decisions from that place, then we’re making different immediate defensive decisions, whereas if you notice it and you take a breath and calm your system down, you can activate the sort of thinking and reasoning part of your brain which goes offline when you’re scared or threatened or stressed.”
Another participant asked how to deal with fraught external factors, like financial anxieties and keeping up to date with updated COVID-19 news and information.
DeGrace said she’s found that, relating to the latter topic, it’s been helpful to be more conscientious of what time during the day she consumes news.
“We don’t have control over what’s going on in the world — we have control over our thinking and feeling, and what we allow to enter our feeling and thinking,” Carmel said. “Grieve, and control what you can…no one has the answers, but we do have some strategies that can give some relief.”
As for how students can deal with the lack of face-to-face interaction, Carmel said parents could best support their children by giving them an avenue to be transparent about their feelings, even if that means being “messy and upset.”
“For some people it’s easier than for others…a really powerful struggle is that it feels like choice is being taken away from us in terms of what we get to do with our lives, and that can be frustrating,” Wilke added. “It does call on a lot of mindful strategies at times.”
A parent asked how he can best prepare his children for the unknown. Even though online learning ends mid-June, as of May 22, it is unclear what exactly the upcoming school year will look like.
“That’s what we’ve been talking about — being able to live in a space of uncertainty, and really not wanting to move into the future,” Carmel said. “Let’s stay in the present moment because we don’t have control over what’s happening in the future.”
“We’re all kind of going through a grief process — kids included — thinking about all the things that have been lost, which [includes] our normal routines and our lifestyles and our ability to be with our friends and sometimes our families,” Wilke said. “It’s a lot for kids to take in, and they don’t have a lot of life experience in how to manage those kinds of feelings…I think, for kids, what they really want to know is things are going to be OK, somehow, some way, and that you’re going to pave the way for them and protect them.”
Upcoming Fireside Chat topics will include stress response and its relationship to COVID-19, “meltdown” management and sensory processing. Dates for these meetings, as of May 22, have not yet been finalized.
“You’re doing a great job,” Degrace said to participants at the end of the webinar. “I can’t stress enough to remind you that we might be the adults, but we still need to care for ourselves.”