Children’s Health Queensland’s Child and Youth Mental Health Service supports infants, children and young people up to the age of 18 years who have complex mental health needs, and their families.
We spoke with Psychologists, a Clinical Nurse, Carer, Health/Education Link Worker, Social Worker, Consumer Carer Co-ordinator, Indigenous health Worker, Speech Pathologist and Child and Youth Psychiatrist, as well as a young person who works as a consultant and lives with mental health challenges, and discovered how their wide array of experiences over the past few months provides a blueprint to help shape all our lives for the better.
Sophie – Psychologist and Team Leader
I work with children and young people with mental health challenges, as well as their families and staff from support agencies. In the months since COVID-19 hit, like many people I have witnessed a wide range of reactions amongst our clients, staff and the wider community. This initially was one of shock (and in some cases stockpiling!) and for everyone a sudden change in routine and limitations on the freedoms we would normally take for granted.
For some young people, the disconnection from school and everyday activities, as well as being largely confined at home, have been a challenge and increased their distress. However for others, who may have struggled with the social aspects of school, this change has come as a relief. Some have also flourished with the chance to be more focused in their online learning, away from the distractions of the classroom.
Parents and carers have experienced a range of emotions too, from increased stress due to factors such as losing a job, feeling cooped up, the pressure of homeschooling or a greater juggling of roles, to the relief that came with the sudden pause in extracurricular activities and the extra time that gave them with immediate family.
This diversity in reactions has been mirrored amongst staff who have grappled with their own wellbeing and the need to provide services in ways other than face-to-face, and the benefits and challenges this raises for both them and their clients.
“For all the negatives, one of the biggest positives that has come out of the current situation is a greater awareness of mental health and that it should be nurtured all times.”
This has been shown in the outpouring of resources and support promoted very publicly, and people from all walks of life openly sharing their struggles. Central to this is the power of connection, and the gratitude that many have expressed about the people in their lives who are vital to their wellbeing.
We are living through a remarkable time right now. My hope is that young people know that anything they’re going through is a really normal response to an incredibly abnormal situation, that they show kindness to themselves as well as others and, if needed, they reach out for help from the wide range of information and support available, including online.
One of my favourite words is meliorism – the belief that the world can be made better by human effort – and this is true now more than ever. If we work together, look out for those who are vulnerable and advocate for greater long-term social support, this is a real opportunity to radically shape in a positive way how we view ourselves, our networks, our previous ways of working and how we treat our planet.
Mikhaela – Consumer Consultant
As a young person with a lived experience of anxiety, I thought I would be adversely impacted and affected by the pandemic. It can be hard to focus on the positives when there is so much hurt and uncertainty.
Maintaining my regular routine has definitely been a protective factor for me. My morning walk to the bus stop has turned out to be a blessing and is something that because of COVID-19 I have started to appreciate and cherish more. I am more grateful than usual to be feeling the cold crisp air, the sunshine, or drops of rain on my face.
I spend the majority of the workday indoors and under bright lights. It is easy to become absorbed and focused on the tasks ahead, but the reality of the pandemic and the impacts are never too far from my mind. In fact, it oozes in throughout the day, sometimes at a slow pace, sometimes at a rapid pace. I can understand and appreciate the challenge we all face by not being able to attend our beloved weekly parkrun, especially when it is such an important part of one’s routine. In due time however, we will all be able to connect again together, and physical activity will play an important role in fostering those all-important connections.
Nicole – Clinical Nurse and Community Mental Health Service Team Leader
I have been reflecting on how fascinating it is that the very physical symptoms I experience that alert me to the fact my mental wellbeing is in decline, are exactly the same physical symptoms I experience when I do something I very much enjoy – running. Yet the two are experienced as completely opposite encounters.
Racing, thudding heartbeat, shortness of breath, the need to keep moving, can all be excruciatingly uncomfortable, unwanted and very distressing. However, experiencing these very same physical symptoms while running provides a sense of freedom, appreciation of being alive, a clear mind, and they make it almost impossible to feel or think anxious thoughts. It shows that sometimes the last thing we feel like doing is the thing we need the most.
Remembering how I feel during or after a run helps me take those first few steps. Like magic, everything changes. COVID-19 has impacted everyone in very different ways, and this can change from minute to minute, day to day. Knowing when you are ‘stuck’ is really important to work out. Connecting with others, getting outside and moving our bodies are all achievable things we can do. We have all struggled, as we are all human. We must be kind and compassionate to ourselves, and invite others in to provide the support that is needed and deserved.
Jenny – Carer
I have three foster sons, one a teenager and two younger boys with disabilities. Two of my adult sons who struggle with mental illness, one has become stronger and one has declined in health. Just like that, the big red button was pushed and we all had to get off our lives and stay home. Anxiety set in. All of a sudden groceries became hard to get, everything closed, the things we took for granted were no longer accessible. Trying to explain to my children you cannot go to school, you cannot go out, you cannot touch anything or anybody. WASH YOUR HANDS.
But we adapted. Technology turned out to be a saviour. FaceTime with family has helped us keep in touch. iPads have been a must for home-schooling my two younger boys. This time off has made me reevaluate my life. I have been forced to slow down and learn to live in a changed world. I have found a new strength I didn’t know I had. ‘Stay strong’ is my new motto in an uncertain world.
Kerry – Indigenous Health Worker
As a strong, proud Aboriginal woman, I would like to reflect on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects I have witnessed have been the inability to lawfully cross borders, loss of freedom, confinement, separation from family and friends and extreme uncertainty. With each new version of restriction, our vulnerabilities increased and the ability of people to cope decreased.
Being Aboriginal and over 50 years of age, I am considered one of the most vulnerable to COVID-19, yet I had to continue to work simply to survive which has had significant consequences on my family’s “sorry business”, important cultural activities and social aspects of everyday life.
For us, our community changed. We were once again required to apply for permits to enter our communities. We were not able to visit parks or significant places. For Aboriginal people, many aspects of our social and emotional care and responsibility are completed on the particular ancestral place “of belonging” through engaging in traditional activities, gathering in large groups for ceremony or “sorry business”, sharing food, housing and yarns with immediate and extended family.
These holistic health activities keep us connected but were now considered a risk. Quarantine and isolation combined with our financial difficulties added to the burden, with many Aboriginal people having limited access to alternative communication methods (phone, computer, internet). Inadequate transport options meant work travel was extended considerably and communication with others reduced.
Despite of these challenges, our incredibly resilient family found joy and shared our stories and our ancestors knowledge and wisdom with others. We found new and innovative ways to provide COVID-19 education for our community and neighbours. Yarning and calming the anxiety and fear of the unknown through song and dance in the backyard.
It is important to acknowledge and understand that as we journey forward as a nation, respectful relationships are critical and many of these relationships are built through community activities like parkrun. I look forward to reuniting with all my fellow parkrun mob.
Claire – Education/Health Link Coordinator
From a professional point of view, this period has highlighted the many stressors our young people face, but it has also demonstrated the strengths of adaptation, growth and determination they hold. For many, this is a period of normal reactions to an abnormal event – for most it will pass, but for some there may be ongoing difficulties, financial stressors, difficulty reengaging in school, family difficulties.
Now more than ever, young people navigating these stressors need our support, guidance and reassurance from those adults around them that things will find a new normal and eventually settle down. There is a period of watchful waiting required, to notice changes in behaviour, appetite, energy – all signs that something may not be going ok. Please seek help if you have any concerns.
The past few months have highlighted to me, more than ever, the importance of self-care, connecting, nourishing our bodies (eating well) and movement.
“The rhythmic nature of movement, like running and walking, is therapeutic, as is being outside in the sunshine and fresh air.”
Movement has been a massive component of my own self care regime, and it is great to see physical activity group options starting to come back also. I would encourage everyone to make some time each day to get outside and move, breathe, feel the sun on your face – it will really help with your mindset.
Neil – Social Worker
One thing we humans crave is certainty, and we have had precious little of it lately. We have been living under a layer of worry and unknowns and a constantly changing environment with many inconsistencies. People have talked about feeling angry, sad, regretful, numb, happy, detached, depressed and a myriad of other feelings. All are completely appropriate under the circumstances.
In some cases the stress and uncertainty have highlighted and sometimes deepened cracks in individual people, families, workplaces and teams where there had been pre-existing struggles. For others, it has been a time to be together and reflect on the important things in life without the distractions of work, outside activities and so on.
Adjusting to this ‘new normal’ has brought new learnings for many of us but it has also been exhausting. For others, a sense of ‘calm ‘has appeared – perhaps as a response to managing instability and uncertainty on more than enough occasions in the past. I’m aware that I am to-ing and fro-ing as I try to make sense of this and perhaps that subliminally sums up our lives in recent months.
Keeping connections and finding them again is vital to our wellbeing, as is closing the physical distance between us when we can.
Lynda – Psychologist
I work with families with infants and young children aged from birth to five years of age. One of my roles is to help parents to have the best possible relationship with their child/children and for the family to have connections with their wider community and extended networks. This, in turn, supports the family’s social and emotional wellbeing and the mental and physical health of the family members.
“I have often encouraged parents to consider parkrun as one of mental health wellbeing strategies, as a way of developing connections and implementing structure, physical activity and predictability into their lives.”
For me, parkrun has been that predictability since 2014, and May 2020 was supposed to be my first overseas parkrun experience – with my mum at Crissy Field parkrun in San Francisco. As our worlds shrunk, so did our routines and connections. The challenge quickly became how to maintain a sense of physical and mental wellbeing in a rapidly spiralling world. Yet despite the negative impacts, distress and trauma caused by the pandemic, the fact it forced the world to press the ‘pause’ button does have its upsides. While our wider world has gotten smaller, for some, our personal worlds have expanded. Without the distraction and demands of a busy, hectic life, many have found new ways of spending time, and by doing so, new ways of reconnecting with themselves and with loved ones.
We have also been creative in finding ways of maintaining connections and routines albeit in a different way. Instead of going to the gym or sporting arena, many of us are now sweating, doing yoga poses or running in our lounge room with our friends via technology. Families are connecting via jigsaw puzzles and are rediscovering the joy of books and cooking together. Similarly the weekly arrival of the parkrun email assures us that although things are different at the moment, connections are still there.
This pandemic has been a huge and frightening threat to our physical and mental wellbeing, our world and what we took for granted. But we have also seen resiliency, creativity and the courage of the human spirit and the enduring nature of relationships and connections even within a world in which we still need to socially distance and wash our hands constantly!
My hope is before we ‘all go back to normal’ we reflect on any learnings we have taken from this. Let’s all take a moment to think about the things that are important to us and those that perhaps aren’t quite as important as we thought they were.
Andrea – Speech Pathologist
I was once given a key ring with the slogan “Speech Pathology is not all talk”!
Language is fundamental to our ability to learn, to express ourselves, to think, to reason and to problem solve, to socialise, and to form relationships. Research is increasingly showing that forming social connections, building relationships and being part of a community plays a significant role in maintaining good mental health and wellbeing.
Of course, this is dependent on the ability to communicate effectively with others but the arrival of COVID-19 brought isolation, physical distancing, the cessation of usual activities and a reduction in opportunities to participate generally in face to face interactions with others. This topped with the barrage of media and social media input coupled with dealing with the anxiety of colleagues, family and friends has meant that the pandemic became the primary topic of conversation and threatened to dominate one’s waking (and sleeping) hours.
All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end and the challenge thus far is that there has been so much uncertainty and unpredictability as to what that the end might look like and when it might occur.
This in turn has resulted in the additional challenges of finding new and unfamiliar ways to connect and communicate with others, to work, exercise and shop.
The big positive is that we have responded to these challenges, which have had a significant impact on our ability to maintain emotional equilibrium in the hurly burly of life. As regular hobbies and interests – our anchor points in life – were suddenly cut, many moved away from flourishing, towards languishing and sometimes beyond.
I have missed my running groups and my gym and my usual get togethers but have sought joy in other places and tried to do life differently – virtual runs and garage workouts. I know that eventually the COVID-19 story will have run its course.
Kerry – Consumer Carer Coordinator
Excitement was in the air! Four weeks of annual leave, travelling to new places on an adventure with my loved one – and then everything happened. Plans changed, then disappeared, then disappointment descended. My mind then turned to how to fill my days in these changed times.
I found myself looking at the house chores I could do and debating with my desire to be on holidays, so I thought about the Wheel of Wellbeing. I divided my day into different tasks roughly 40 minutes each and alternating between exercise, nature, connection, foods, relaxation and pleasure.
My day started to take shape and I started to feel I had a balance of enjoyment and accomplishment. My disappointment about not travelling began to subside and I found I was coping quite well with my new routine. Gardening in the morning, weeding, planting and rearranging gave me satisfaction as I nurtured my new seedlings. Cleaning one set of windows and one cupboard or drawer made me feel I had achieved something each day.
My early morning runs, or late afternoon walks maintained my physical activity levels and prevented the holiday slump. I chatted to kids, dogs and families I had never seen before in my street all mastering bicycles or having a family walk. I joined the teddy bear brigade and contributed our well-loved toys to the windowsills and trees, much to the delight of the young passers-by.
Once I felt I had had some downtime I would plan a chat with an old friend. Not the usual texting but the old-fashioned phone chat like we did as young mothers at home with our children. Sanity restored! Kindness from others is probably the single most important gift we can give to each other. My wish is that we keep the good things we have learnt and be mindful of our mental health as we return to our ‘new normal’.
The final word…
Stephen – Medical Director (Child and Youth Psychiatrist)
Being a front-line worker in mental health has been difficult. Many of us have understandably become disheartened, anxious and confused. COVID-19 has resulted in untold suffering and misery for millions of people.
But what strikes me as I read through these testimonials is an overwhelming sense of grace and peace despite the significant stresses that we have all experienced in these tough times.
Through it all I’ve been reminded again and again of the goodness of people. Despite financial and job losses, social isolation and bereavement, it seems to me that the ‘thing in the air’ is that we are all in this together. It is said that gratitude transforms what we have into what is enough.
While COVID-19 has changed the landscape of the way we live and work, it has also provided the incentive for us all to reconsider the way we construct our lives. By forcing us to slow down, it has allowed us to reevaluate our priorities in ways that we could never have foreseen, even just a few months ago. And while this might have been stressful, it has given many of us the time to think about what is truly important. In a time of enforced social isolation, I have found that relationships have been strengthened as we have pared back the busyness of modern life, allowing some of us to find new ways to meaningfully connect to each other.
This period has also made me very proud of the child and youth mental health workforce, as we continue to support each other, and the young people and families that we care so deeply about.
Children’s Health Queensland’s Child and Youth Mental Health Service specialises in helping children and young people who have complex mental health needs.
The Service supports children and young people up to 18 years of age who are struggling with anxiety, depression, their attachment-relationships, eating disorders, school refusal, psychosis, suicidal and/or self-harming behaviours and/or trauma.
The children and young people have been impacted in their development, close relationships, activities, education or work and in recent times by COVID-19.
CYMHS teams are multidisciplinary and may include child and adult psychiatrists and registrars, allied health professionals (e.g. psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and speech pathologists), art therapists, music therapists, exercise physiologists, nursing, medical, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers, dieticians with the support of administrative staff.
Talk to your local GP if you or a family member require Mental Health support.
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