As a human race, we have entered uncharted waters and new territory as we struggle to continue our lives in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of us have attended to socially distancing ourselves, picking up essential items from the grocery store, and ensuring that our loved ones are safe and supported. As Catholics, we’ve found creative ways to gather to celebrate Mass and pray with others all over the nation and the world. However, in the midst of giving attention to all of these demands, we might forget to take care of one crucial thing in particular: our mental health.
As someone who lives with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, I can confirm that the presence of coronavirus and the changes it has wrought in my daily life are making it particularly challenging to cope. I find myself with racing thoughts: When will this be over? Will my loved ones and I be protected? How much will this affect my finances? Where even is God in this? This is why I am particularly invested in my mental health right now: the challenges of the pandemic have the potential to trap me in an endless state of anxiety, panic, and depression. Although the pandemic presents me with challenging days ahead, I know that I can survive them by taking extra care of my mental health.
To take a step back, why should mental health matter to us so much as Christians, especially now? First, mental health allows us to live in right relationship with ourselves, others, and God. By cultivating mental health, we can strengthen self-esteem, learn how to be a more compassionate friend or partner, or learn how our human experiences have affected our relationship with God. Second, focusing on our mental health allows us to be stewards of God’s creation, specifically good stewards of the body that God has created and given to us. Though we are living in a time of panic and uncertainty, we have agency and the ability to take care of ourselves in a way that allows us to continue the hard work of bringing forth the Kingdom of God, even in a pandemic. Third, focusing our efforts on our mental health is bound up in our pursuit of holiness. As we focus on mental health, we grow in self-awareness, communication, compassion, and moral judgement; in other words, we engage in formation that allows us to be a “bridge and not an obstacle” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 43) to Jesus Christ in our own lives and the lives of others. In other words, intentionally focusing on our mental health during this challenging time is a way in which we can follow the command to “love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
In being intentional about my own mental health at this time, here are some thoughts and practices that I’ve found most helpful in coping with uncertainty, panic, anxiety, and depression:
How can you engage in practices that cultivate your self-awareness this week? What/who are valuable resources of support? How do you feel that you need to show up for yourself this week? Where could you use some extra self-compassion in your life? Finally, how might being intentional about cultivating your mental health bring you into right relationship with yourself, others, and God during this time?
Colleen Campbell is the Coordinator of Formation Programs at the Catholic Apostolate Center, and a 3rd year PhD student studying Catechetics at The Catholic University of America. She holds an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas. Colleen is also an alumna of Notre Dame’s Echo program, where she served in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. She is co-author of The Art of Accompaniment: Theological, Spiritual, and Practical Elements of Building a More Relational Church.
To all the parents home with their children, who are looking for creative, easy, or fun ways to spend the day, here are some great options to try for spiritual, mental, and physical health!
Set a routine. It is important to establish consistency and keep kids on a structure like they are during a school day. For older children, have them collaborate with you as you create a schedule to allow for some influence on their day. It allows for predictability in the day, and children knowing what is expected of them is crucial to the well-being and peace of all in the family. Below is a schedule example. This can be used as a starting place for your family. Feel free to move things around or dedicate your time differently. What’s important is maintaining a routine that works for your family!
Focus on gratitude. With many feeling anxious and having to deal with a lot that is so unknown, having a grateful heart can mean a world of difference for your well-being and that of your family. Have your child write thank-you-notes to mail carriers, restaurant workers, grocery store employees, and members of the family. Or, start the day by finding 3 things to be grateful for, then end the day like that too. Talk about this with your child and share your gratitude with them.
Prayer. There is nothing more powerful than prayer, and prayer as a family is crucial during this time at home together. Make time. Take time. Add it to a daily routine. In addition to saying prayers you may know by rote, consider reading the Daily Readings from USCCB to read the Word together in prayer.
Play! For young children, older teens, and everyone in between, play is crucial. For older children that may mean down-time or free time to decompress, but for young children in elementary school this is so important for development. Playing together, but also playing independently helps support their creativity. As a parent, also take some time to think of ways you can “play”—not only with your children, but with your spouse or on your own. Make sure to come up with fun activities that are life-giving for you and your spouse: board games, a puzzle, baking, etc.
Pretend and make believe. “Boredom breeds creativity” I was once told, and I couldn’t agree more! When children are given a chance to imagine and pretend away from distractions and technology they will think up all kinds of incredible things. As a parent, you may need to guide or inspire some pretend or make-believe with prompts or guidelines until your kids seem ready to take-off on their own. Even giving your child a difficult or challenging task and saying, “figure it out” may help for older kids who need to problem-solve. But here are some ways to get started:
Exercise. For children of all ages and adults too, exercise is so important. Although we must consider social distancing, getting outside and even just taking a walk is more crucial than ever as we are in our homes all day long. If you don’t have a yard to play in, try walking to the closest field or park to catch a ball or ride a bike around the neighborhood. If you cannot get outside, there is plenty to do inside. YouTube has workouts for children and adults, and there are workouts on Netflix and other streaming services to get you started.
Write letters. This is a nice thing to do at all ages and levels of writing abilities, young ones can draw pictures and write what they can, while older kids could tell someone all about their latest adventure at home. Write to grandparents, relatives, elderly folks in nursing homes, neighbors, and friends from school who are also at home. It’s amazing how good someone may feel receiving a note or letter, knowing your child was thinking of them.
Call someone, FaceTime, or video chat with someone. We are blessed in this digital age to have technology that can still keep us “together.” Calling friends, family, and loved ones, either on the phone or using a video chat application, maintains and strengthens our relationships with people we may not be able to see or visit right now.
Read a book. Have your child help you create a booklist of 50 or 100 books and see how many they can read, then have a fun prize like baking cookies together or extra down-time be the reward.
Activity pages made by teachers. For kids who are out of school altogether, look for materials online to keep kids up to speed on math skills, reading activities, and everything in between. With schools shut down, there is plenty out there to find!
Make your own studying tools. Don’t forget that anyone (including the student) can make flash cards for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division - as long as you have paper and something to write with! Some drills you could practice:
Fine motor development. Play with Play Doh (or make your own). Squeeze items with tweezers. Count and play with beads or buttons. Bake and roll out dough, ball up cookies, or knead pizza dough.
We are living in unprecedented times which can add to the stress level of family life. We invite you during this pandemic to see this as a blessed time to rekindle relationships within your families and communities through prayer, play, and creativity and hope these resources will prove fruitful for you as we continue to navigate this time.
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Krissy Pierno is a Pre-K teacher in the Archdiocese of Washington. She has a bachelor's degree from The Catholic University of America in Early Childhood Education and is certified by the District of Columbia to teach classes from Pre-K to 3rd grade.