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COVID-19 and Mental Health: A Q&A with Amy Grosso, PhD

April 29, 2020 David Wylie

COVID-19 mental health woman looking out window

As director of behavioral health at Round Rock ISD, Amy Grosso, PhD specializes in supporting students who carry the weight of emotions such as depression, grief, anger, and anxiety. She also knows she has to invest in her own emotional well-being as the coronavirus pandemic forces her to adapt to a new reality.

In a recent post on her blog, she explained that the pandemic and social distancing have left her feeling scared, sad, stressed, anxious, and uncertain. Millions of administrators, teachers, support staff, parents, and students likely feel the same way. Grosso graciously agreed to share tips we can all apply toward taking care of ourselves and our loved ones.

How does stress from an incident like this pandemic differ from day-to-day stress?

We are all used to daily stress, and we have developed a variety of coping strategies. While we might not enjoy the stress, it does not overwhelm us on a day-to-day basis. In addition, while I might be having a stressful day, it doesn’t necessarily mean my family and friends are also experiencing a high level of stress. Pandemic-related stress is different because it is a group experience. We have all been thrown into a situation that is completely new, and we are all experiencing it together. Many of our previous coping strategies are not working, or we aren’t able to practice them because of stay-at-home orders and social distancing.

What is one principle everyone can apply during the pandemic?

My favorite psychoanalyst, Alfred Adler, believed all human behavior is purposeful. Because of the pandemic, the structure and familiarity of life is gone. Many of us are left questioning, confused, and wondering. To better help ourselves, our children, and our students, we must strive to understand the purpose behind our current behavior and accompanying emotions.

It can be hard enough for adults to understand and process their own emotions. How can we help children do the same?

I recommend talking to children about their emotions as much, if not more, than you talk about academics. As you uncover emotions, accept them for what they are. A great activity to help with this is watching the movie Inside Out. It doesn’t matter how old you are. The movie facilitates thinking and reflecting on emotions.

How can we resist the urge to be too hard on ourselves and others?

I really believe managing expectations is critical to promoting mental health in the midst of drastic change. Think about the expectations you had for yourself and others two months ago, and then think about how those expectations must change to fit our current circumstances.

How does the loss of control over our lives impact our emotional health?

If we only focus on what is out of our control, we can get stuck in feelings of hopelessness, fear, and negativity. Slowly changing our focus to what is in our control can empower and heal us.

Do you have advice for switching our focus to what we can control?

Start by drawing a circle on a piece of paper. On the outside of the circle, write everything that is out of your control. Inside the circle, write everything that is in your control. As you look at what you have inside and outside the circle, reflect on how much time you spend on each thing, and focus on how you can start moving your attention inside the circle.

How can we balance our desire to stay informed about the pandemic with our need to protect ourselves from negative news?

Focus on facts and decide when and where you will get your information. While it is important to be knowledgeable, it is critical to understand that fear spreads faster than a virus. Be careful of consuming too much news in front of kids. You want to be honest about what is happening, but overexposure is not good for any of us.

Educators are often the first to recognize when students need help. How can you continue to play that important role during distance learning?

Educators should continue to think of themselves as the eyes and ears for picking up if a student is having a difficult time. It’s not your job to fix the concern, but you can point the student and the family to the appropriate resource provided through the district or the community. School counselors and social workers are a great resource for teachers if they notice a student is struggling.

What are some best practices schools can adopt if the district or campus is dealing with the loss of a faculty member, employee, or student due to COVID-19?

It is important to remember grief is a process, not a destination. Each person grieves differently, and one way is not better than the other. Not being able to gather and remember those we have lost also impacts our grief process. If a district has an employee assistance program, make sure staff knows it is available, even during social distancing. Many therapists are using telehealth an alternative to in-person sessions. For students, counseling teams can develop a way to check in with students and refer them to outside resources if necessary.

What mental health challenges, including potential trauma, might students face when schools return to normal operations? How can educators prepare to address them?

While the rate of anxiety was already the number one mental health condition for school-age children, the number of students struggling with mental health conditions could rise. It is critical that schools know signs and symptoms to look for in students. Schools should also have protocols in place to make sure students are referred to the appropriate resource. This is also a great time to provide staff with professional development in childhood trauma. If educators do not know the different ways students respond to trauma, they could unknowingly continue a negative experience for students.

About Amy Grosso

Amy Grosso, PhD serves as the first director of behavioral health at Round Rock ISD. In that role, she oversees programs for students who are in crisis or at risk due to depression, grief, suicidal ideation, anger, inadequate social skills, disruptive behavior, or family problems. To learn more, watch this recorded webinar about the connection between student mental health and school security.

Tagged: coronavirus, COVID-19, "Risk Trends"