Dr. Jen Walker
It has been almost two months since Scarsdale Schools closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. There has been a great deal of confusion and distress during this time, so we had a conversation with our two school psychologists, Dr. Peter Faustino and Dr. Jennifer Walker. In this interview, we discussed topics including mental health, anxiety, and day to day life.
What makes epidemics so scary? Is the panic uncalled for?
Dr. Faustino: From a psychologist’s perspective, it’s the idea that there’s something we can’t control. It’s so large and so widespread that it really feels like we’re not necessarily in control or can’t influence the outcome of something like this. The panic starts to set in when people really let their worst fears come to the forefront of their minds, and that starts to feel psychologically scary.
Dr. Walker: This is a rare time in history where the entire globe is affected. So, I think there are two things specifically for how widespread and serious it is. You know the unknown of this severity. What is known is that it is very serious and has been lethal for very many, many people. I guess another thing would also be the lack of control. And that there’s so little that can be done to influence it.
Do you think people would be more or less scared if the virus originated in the United States instead of in another country?
Dr. Faustino: I just learned this word recently—sinophobia. It means fear of Chinese culture and people. The idea that government officials and people in the media who are attaching the virus’ name to China adds to that. There’s fear of the unknown. I haven’t thought about it, but I guess I would say that maybe it does add to the fear that people have. Not only are they not aware of what the virus is and what it’s doing, but now it’s being attached to another culture and another country that people don’t know enough about as well. And that adds to the complexity of what people don’t understand about this virus.
Dr. Walker: I think that in the beginning, people were less scared because “It’s not us” and that’s how I thought of it to tell my own children and to kids at school. It’s so far away from here, at that point the closest one was Michigan. There were 6 cases in the United States at that point.
Then it was being called an outbreak. I was afraid of it being spoken about as an outbreak in the United States because it would cause more panic and anxiety. But obviously, at this point, it’s much more serious. I was very much opposed to kind of raising any kind of hysteria and anxiety, but now I think we can’t be serious enough. Florida opened its beaches; it’s a terrible mistake. The closest thing we know is the Spanish Flu and that had three waves because they loosened restrictions. I mean Florida had its beaches open for spring break, so college students were there from all over our country and [the consequences are already starting to show].
What is your reaction to the widespread fear in the United States? How should people deal with their anxiety at a time like this?
Dr. Faustino: It doesn’t surprise me completely that there’s a lot of fear around this, but I have really tried to focus myself on either good news or honest news that is coming out. [Governor Cuomo]’s also sharing a lot of personal experiences about how he’s emotionally dealing with it, or he offers strategies in what’s helping him feel a little better in this moment of crisis. Even though there is quite a bit of fear, under the circumstances where people are dying and there’s this very contagious virus out there, and our lives have been really uprooted and we’re doing things we weren’t prepared for when this virus broke out, [the panic makes sense].
What I’d like people to start doing is following a lot of the good advice that’s out there. It’s pretty easy to go online and google information for help and advice. And you see pretty much the same kinds of things over and over again, the idea of the importance of sleep, the importance of physical activity and exercise, finding new ways to connect with people, keeping thoughts positive, finding ways to meditate or do things that make you feel better. We don’t have control over the virus, but we do have ways of controlling how we respond. That’s the important thing. People are reading the suggestions and saying, “well that sounds good!” but then not actually trying these things. So really encouraging people to do some of these things, I think that would help to deal with all this stress.
Dr. Walker: I think, so, really anxiety is just this fear of the unknown and not having any control over the unknown. Staying home as much as possible, protecting yourself when you’re out. I mean, now it’s a mandate from our governor that everybody has to wear a face mask when we’re out. Basically I think we can reduce anxiety by controlling what we can and also limiting access to media and that kind of thing because it’s scary to hear it all. We want to be informed but not overwhelmed or overstimulated by what the media has to offer. Also, whatever you can to stay healthy.
For kids, everybody is connected virtually. It increases their anxiety in some ways. Getting some exercise and some fresh air, taking a walk in your neighborhood, maybe with family as family time. I was actually talking with colleagues, maybe my family will have a fancy dinner, like everybody dress up, to try to normalize things a little bit. Doing things together and feeling productive. Whatever it is, if it’s school, if it’s emotional, to please reach out to somebody. Helping others always helps us. Not necessarily getting out there face to face with people. Sending notes of kindness, appreciation, to hospitals and things like that.
What are the effects of quarantine on an individual’s mental health?
Dr. Faustino: I’ve noticed an interesting trend over the last month, and Scarsdale was one of the first schools to really close its doors in response to the virus. I think that really helped protect students and families and flatten the curve. What I’ve noticed is that at the very beginning, there was this very immediate sense that, “Oh, we’re just getting a couple of days off school, this feels like fun,” and then with some of the e-learning, it was like, “Well this is new and I’m okay with it, it’s interesting,” and then I think things really started to get a little more serious as the time span went on, to the point where wellness week came at a good time because it gave us all a little bit of a break from the pressure and anxiety, and allow us to catch up.
But now we’ve been off for four weeks or so, and at this point what I’m noticing is a lot of students and a lot of families who are really experiencing loss and grief and sadness and maybe even a little bit of anger. Now it’s starting to set in. Seniors are losing prom, and athletes are losing big sporting games that they were hoping for, people who are in Science Olympiad and Science Research are missing competitions that they were planning for, and those things are now different, changed, or we’ve lost them completely. So I think, sadly, people are going through different stages, and right now we’re in a stage where people are really experiencing loss and sadness, and that’s hard to deal with. As those stages continue, I certainly hope that we start to think about a hope and re-entry plan and returning to some level of normalcy.
Dr. Walker: Because of the social isolation, basically it’s a lot of anxiety and sadness, if not depression. And just fear, again of the unknown, what could happen to you, what could happen to your parents, grandparents. I think most people find it, at this point, everybody knows somebody who’s been affected, if not ill. Things are getting better, in terms of, people getting better from it and discharges and that kind of thing. I see people being discharged; I live by a hospital in my town and on Facebook, I think it was the other day, 19 people were discharged that day. It’s also how you can help others. Social isolation and feeling that you don’t have control. Being afraid for loved ones and yourself. And just not knowing when it’s going to end. I think that kind of unknown thing is pretty frightening.
About racism and blaming Asian Americans at a time like this, what causes people to scapegoat groups of people in crises?
Dr. Faustino: I’ll say two things—one is about this quote I read this morning. It said something about how a little bit of information can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes I think people don’t know enough about different cultures and different backgrounds—it’s not their own experience—and people should really educate themselves more and be more understanding [before they make a judgment]. I think the other answer is that when people are anxious and afraid, their emotions come out in different ways. One of them can be the tendency to blame, to want to exert control over the situation, and to find a way to channel that emotion, though in an unhealthy way. And so they scapegoat others, and that could somehow alleviate some of the problems people are having with this. It’s not a healthy defense mechanism, but it helps us understand how these processes occur in times like these, and what we’re seeing is that the people who do this are actually the most afraid.
Dr. Walker: I had heard that right before we were closed, that Asian kids were being targeted sometimes because it seems to have originated in [Asia]. I think that in general, in times of crisis, I think that it’s the fear of the unknown again, so you feel then that there’s more control when you’re blaming someone else and not just that unknown entity. Well, we can just pinpoint it, and then it’s less scary. And when people are anxious… Anxiety makes people very self-protective and really on edge and less kind and more easily angered and stirred and that kind of thing. So the anger can be easily put on other people as scapegoats.
What is your reaction to social media in times of crisis? Does it cause misinformation or spread awareness? How should people stay informed?
Dr. Faustino: Both. I don’t think it’s inherently good or bad, and it really depends on how you use it and what you choose to engage with. I think social media outlets that are talking about positive things, allow you to connect to your friends, stay in touch with schoolwork, and share factual information are really important and critical. However, if you spend time on social media monitoring how many people have died each day, or reading things about parts of the country that are not really handling the situation well, that can trigger you and make you angry, anxious and fearful. If you’re reading social media posts that talk about this as a “Chinese virus”, that’s only going to perpetuate the myth. So it really can be used for good and for bad, and I think students have to work hard at being good consumers of information.
Dr. Walker: Yes, it does spread information but misinformation also. If you want information, don’t get it from social media, get it from sites. The tenth-grade health class always does a class on cyberbullying but a lot of it really is just what happens when there is a screen between people. Whether or not we can see one another, just having the screen, just allows people to say things that they would not say in person. And when it’s read whether than through speaking to another human being, things are often really misinterpreted and when people are already on edge, they just kind of blow-up from there. Social media can make things too easy for things to just get out of control.
What are some essential things that students should make sure to do day-to-day? Is it necessary to create consistency and act as one would’ve before we left school?
Dr. Faustino: Yes. Obviously the situation is unprecedented. I think you shouldn’t get too frustrated or upset when things don’t go the way as planned, and we shouldn’t expect to have the same functionality that we had when we were in school. This is definitely different, and it’s a new normal for our day-to-day. But on the other hand, I do think that schedules and consistency can be really helpful to our mental health and well-being, you know, having a bedtime, and set meal-times. Having a schedule for what we do day-to-day can certainly help our bodies and our minds find the situation more predictable. Humans tend to like goals, predictable behaviors, and predictable schedules. And if we’re able to set those things up, it can help our mental health. Give yourself permission not to be perfect, but at the same time, strive to create some schedules and some consistency at times like this.
Dr. Walker: Absolutely. I have sent out a couple of things that can be helpful. I believe the Green Ribbon Club sent something out to help out with this as well. But getting up at the same time every day, getting dressed in school clothes, sitting upright to do your work instead of lounging in bed where you may fall asleep, eating regularly and healthily. Taking care of your routine that way, it’s almost like mental hygiene. Trying to stay on top of schoolwork and keeping yourself busy adds to it, plus practicing mindfulness. Maintaining normalcy in your life is critical. Every day—kids and adults have found this helpful—you can make a gratitude log, just as a reminder of all the positive things in our lives. Using a calendar and a schedule can really help bring order to your day. We should all be easy on ourselves and easy on other people.
For tips on how to take care of yourself and your mental health, the mental health staff has provided the following documents:
Tips (for Students) from the Mental Health Staff
Managing Anxiety – For Students and Families