Talking with U of M

Talking mental health with U of M

People holding hands.
Credit: Getty/scyther5

The COVID-19 pandemic may be stressful for many Minnesotans, leading to fear, anxiety and other strong emotions.

Tai Mendenhall, an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Couple and Family Therapy Program, explains how the pandemic can affect the mental health of individual people, couples and families, as well as ways they can care for their overall well-being.

Q: How can the pandemic impact a person’s everyday well-being?
Prof. Mendenhall:
Like with all things, the pandemic is affecting our surroundings, our interactions with others and even our own biology. For individuals, their response to stressors caused by a pandemic can vary.

Physically, we may experience increased insomnia, headaches, or lethargy. Our appetites might be changing — gravitating toward lots of junk food, or to not eating at all.

Psychologically, we may feel more irritable and short-tempered, sad or depressed, worried or scattered, keyed-up or on-edge. We may be having difficulties with concentration or memory. We may be disengaging from work (and others), and not getting anything productive done. Some of us, on the other hand, may be throwing ourselves into work as a way to distract from what’s happening at home and around the world.

Socially, we may be less interested in talking with friends or family – or maybe we want this more than ever before (e.g., Zoom, telephone). 

Q: How and why do people respond differently to the stress caused by the pandemic?
Prof. Mendenhall:
We know from years of research about stress and trauma (i.e., historical, current, acute, and/or chronic) that the nature of these things is more influenced by how we perceive what is happening than our actual experiences. 

Two people — or billions of people — can have the same thing happen to them, but they will experience that thing differently depending on their viewpoint. For example, does an individual see it as a disaster or a challenge, and is this about me, personally, or about us as a group? 

Many of the ways we see people responding to COVID-19 can be traced back to this. 

Q: Rural areas often face disparities when it comes to mental health. How has COVID-19 affected this?
Prof. Mendenhall:
COVID-19 has likely led to a greater need for care. However, solutions are needed to address significant barriers in rural areas. Often these barriers are called the Three A’s: 

  • First, acceptability is hard. Due to the stigma around mental health problems, it can be more difficult for someone who wants help to reach out for it. They may be worried about how others may perceive them.
  • Second, accessibility is a problem, because there are not many mental health providers situated in rural areas. Individuals may not be able to meet with a provider because the provider’s schedule is completely full, they are too far away, or may not be able to take time off of work to accommodate a visit and travel time. 
  • Third, affordability is an issue. Even if a provider is immediately nearby and available, some simply cannot afford it. Incomes tend to be lower in rural communities and jobs may not come with fully supportive health insurance coverage.  

Q: What are ways for individuals to care for their own mental health and those of others?
Prof. Mendenhall:
Mental health is connected to all the layers that make us human — from biological to social levels.

During COVID-19, we should:

  • pay attention to eating a good diet, get daily exercise, and practice common sense sleep hygiene strategies. 
  • disengage from constant negative news and social media exposure, embrace the art or music that you “never have time” for — read (for fun), meditate and engage with nature.  
  • do all of these things with others, such as planning weekly Zoom calls with loved ones, writing letters (the old fashioned, handwritten kind) and telling people that you love that you love them. 

Whatever you do, do it on purpose — and do more than one thing. We always do better when we do a lot of things rather than when we put all of our eggs into one basket.

Q: What does your work in mental health show?
Prof. Mendenhall:
My work in mental health shows what I shared above — the more we do, the better we do. For example, we can exercise and will likely notice some improvements. Or we can exercise, practice good sleep hygiene, engage with our loved ones, read for pleasure, and practice our faith to have an even greater effect. In these instances, one thing can equal one, but two things can feel like four. Five things can feel like 100.

Additionally, for our first responders across Minnesota, we — along with our partners here in the state — created the First Responder Toolkit App. It is designed to help providers from all disciplines understand, track and manage their stress. It can be used on both cell phones and laptops.

This toolkit is a scaled-down version of an app that will be completed later this year, but we believe the information and assistance provided through the toolkit can provide our first responders critical support during COVID-19 so that they can assess and track their risk(s) for burnout and/or compassion fatigue. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing emotional distress or a mental health crisis, there are resources available:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK
  • Crisis Text Line: Text “MN” to 741741
  • Minnesota Farm & Rural Helpline: (833) 600-2670

Tai Mendenhall, Ph.D., LMFT, is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Department of Family Social Science. His expertise is in medical family therapy, families and chronic illness, trauma and fieldwork, and citizen health care. 

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