‘We are meant to be in villages’: DHMC launches web series to help parents, others cope

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Original reporting by GSNC Logo

LEBANON, NH – Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center kicked off its “Heads Up: Coping Through COVID-19” mental health webinar series Wednesday afternoon with advice for parents of infants through 6th graders hitting on topics such as school and family issues as well as social isolation. 

“It’s really important to tell children they are safe,” Erin Barnett, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, said during the webinar. “Children are inherently ego-centric so they immediately start thinking about themselves and their own wellness and safety. And I think we can explain that the sickness is like the cold or flu, to them, but it’s worse for certain people and older people especially. And explain the sickness’ germs spread through people touching and coughing and being near each other so the reason we’re all staying home and not getting together, really in a way, is to protect those that might get really sick if they get this. But kids are not getting really sick from this so they are safe and OK.”

Barnett said if a parent is too nervous to talk to their children about this they should turn to a friend or a school counselor. But keep the conversation brief, she said. “They can only process a little bit at a time. So keep it brief when you are talking to them. Answer their questions and then move on.”

  • Caroline Christie, MSW, Clinical Social Worker, Children’s Hospital at
  • Dartmouth-Hitchcock Intensive Care Nursery also participated in the webinar.
  • Audra Burns, media relations manager at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, is the series moderator. 

The webinar was the first of six Dartmouth-Hitchcock plans to live stream on Facebook in the coming weeks, Burns said. 

Screenshot 2020 04 23 at 8.47.39 AM
“Heads Up: Coping Through COVID-19” is a video series from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, featuring experts on child psychology, stress, psychiatry, anxiety, and geriatrics, offering information and tips for people of all ages. [Watch the first episode at the top of this story via YouTube.]

Christie spoke to parents of newborns saying that in normal times one in seven women are affected by postpartum depression. She said to look for signs such as brain fog, exhaustion or loss of interest in pleasurable activities and reach out to your health care provider if you think you need help. 

Postpartum anxiety includes heart palpitations and thoughts of worry about yourself or the baby that won’t go away, as well as avoiding talking about the baby or the childbirth experience.

Parents should make sure they are both hydrating, getting enough sleep, and eating regular meals. She added to make sure there are quick high protein snacks around.

“As the weather gets nicer … getting out for a half-hour a day, even if your pants are on inside out. Getting out for half an hour can really change your mood,” Christie said. 

Sing and read to the baby and reach out to your provider if you don’t feel up to engaging with the baby. The baby is not going to notice the isolation while the parents might be feeling affected by it.

“The baby will be fine. I think mom and dad need to take care of themselves,” Christie said. 

Burns asked Barnett to talk to parents who might already be struggling with addiction or mental health issues. Barnett said everyone should be taking extra care of themselves right now because the self-isolation that is a result of people are feeling because of the Stay-at-Home order is going to challenge everyone and parents, especially single parents, should not “set the bar too high.”

“This is very, very hard for everyone,” Barnett said. “It’s not just for those with mental health or addictions. … We are meant to be in villages and this social isolation is really hard on us. Humans are not meant to parent alone or just be with two caregivers. It makes it incredibly stressful. And if we have mental health and or substance misuse issues it makes it even more impossible.”

And addictions are not just with substances, food and online shopping may be affecting people that don’t normally struggle with addictions. “Lots of different addictions could come up right now,” she said. 

The isolation can be amplified in people out of work because it is also causing a felt lack of purpose in some. But even those working at home are missing the social engagement from their job and maybe juggling working from home and homeschooling their children for the first time. Parents and children are missing friends, the structure of a regular schedule, and favorite activities that are now canceled. 

“It’s just a big equation for depression and anxiety. And sadly it is an equation for substance misuse and other addictions,” Barnett said. 

Barnett said it is just a fact that at times of stress like this children are at a higher risk of neglect or harm at home.

“And that is a reality we just cannot deny as a society. So if you are worried about yourself or another family that’s under incredible stress or maybe at risk of child abuse or neglect please, please let people know. It’s really important,” Barnett said.

Barnett said for many parents, “homeschooling is not going well.” Her solution is to let it go. 

“If you have to throw in the towel on homeschooling one day, do it. If you have to stay in bed because of a crappy mood, do it, and invite your children, to snuggle,” Barnett said. 

Stay connected to yourself and give up the battles with your children over school work and household chores. Instead, choose your relationship with your children over those battles and when they are doing well praise them and thank them. 

“Praising them in their good moments is really important,” Barnett said. 

Barnett said too much screen time is a pet peeve of her’s at home with her own children, but she is trying to let that go and encourages other parents to do so as well and let the extra screen time be a break for everyone to relieve stress.

“I think the rule of the day is to do the best you can,” Barnett said.

Burns added in her home she is encouraging screentime as a family activity and time spent together as opposed to her children playing games by themselves, which can be isolating for families. 

The “Heads Up: Coping Through COVID-19” series is live-streamed on the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Facebook page at noon, Eastern Standard Time, on the next five Wednesdays. 

Attendees of the webinars are invited to submit questions prior to the email social@hitchcock.org. Questions can also be asked on the D-H Facebook page during each live stream. Dartmouth-Hitchcock plans to archive the webinars on the D-H YouTube channel.

Next up in the series:

  • April 29: Focus on Parents of Seventh Graders Through College-Age – featuring pediatrician Kimberly Gifford, MD, and Susan Pullen, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, who will address how to talk about COVID-19 and social distancing, school, and mental wellbeing with older children.
  • May 6: Focus on High School Students – featuring John Broderick, Senior Director of Public Affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice, and a panel of high school students, who will address the importance of social distancing, mental health, and staying connected to friends, classmates and teammates.
  • May 13: Focus on Health Care Workers and First Responders – featuring Stephen Cole, PhD, Manager, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Employee Assistance Program, who will address managing stress, protecting yourself and loved ones, and mental wellbeing.
  • May 20: Focus on Adults, Navigating Stress and Mental Wellbeing – featuring Robert Brady, PhD, Director of Anxiety Disorders Service, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, William Torrey, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, and Ken Norton, Executive Director, National Alliance on Mental Illness, New Hampshire (NAMI NH), who will address managing mental health, staying informed, and staying connected and productive.
  • May 27: Focus on Seniors – panelists to be announced, who will address managing anxiety surrounding the pandemic and staying connected to loved ones.

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Meghan Pierce

Meghan Pierce is founder and editor of Monadnock Beat.