Guest Columnist

Supporting, not shaming, during a pandemic

A microscopic view of the MERS coronavirus. Picture provided by the Centers for Disease Control.
A microscopic view of the MERS coronavirus. Picture provided by the Centers for Disease Control.

Let’s begin with this: practicing social distancing, quarantining ourselves and our families if we may have been exposed to the virus, and following all guidelines of public officials is an absolute must. We need more Iowans to stay home, to stay away from others and to stop touching their faces. Period.

At the same time, everyone needs support and empathy for the myriad issues arising in households here and everywhere. It’s a confusing time for us as adults, but it is particularly challenging for teens and young adults — especially those already grappling with mental health issues.

A Gazette columnist recently opined (“Listen up Iowa, it’s time to shelter in place,” March 27) that parents should suck it up and put our feet down. Telling parents our teens can mope and play video games and they’ll be fine is a gross oversimplification of the struggles parents of adolescents and young adults are facing. Whether intentional or not, the columnist’s statement sends exactly the wrong message to vulnerable families who may be at our wits’ end and wondering whether we should seek help. This is certainly not a time to belittle mental health issues or to be flippant with words.

All parenting is very difficult right now. Parents with young children have some chance to choose what information our kids receive, filter it through our own words, on our own timelines, and couple it with comfort and compassion.

It doesn’t work the same way with teens and young adults. Many of them were on the brink of independence and are now stuck isolated at home with their parents, not knowing when or how this will end or what their lives will look like when it’s over. They’ve been torn from friends, routines and the things they love. They are grieving the loss of their final seasons, their graduation and the milestone celebrations they worked hard to earn. These teens are “adult-sized” but they lack the maturity and brain development to process, understand and see a larger picture beyond their own feelings. “Suck it up” is a clueless and dangerous philosophy for dealing with this age group.

As parents, we don’t know what will happen either — and our teens know it. We can’t reassure them without lying to them. They see what’s happening because they spend time scrolling content — real and fake — that communicates how bad things really are. Stories of anger and deep depression, of rebellion and flat out insubordination are commonplace as parents try to get our teens to follow new rules.

Nothing will make this easy, but here’s some advice that may help parents looking for positive, helpful guidance rather than being called dinguses:

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• Acknowledge this is hard, that we don’t know. But that we’re all in it together.

• Help them see that as hard as this is, this is an opportunity to grow and to be part of a solution rather than part of the problem.

• Get them the support they need — and parents should get it too! Free support (both parents and teens — And anyone else!) is available by calling Foundation 2’s crisis line at 319-362-2174, and video-support with a trained mobile crisis counselor is available 24/7 at no cost (just call the crisis line).

• Find parents who also are trying to stick to the guidelines and lean on each other for support when our teens erode our resolve. A quick check-in with another parent and a pact to stay strong and find creative ways for teens to safely connect can make a huge difference in our ability to stand our ground.

It should be noted that suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth age 15-24. When you increase factors that already make youth at risk — isolation, boredom, anxiety, withdrawal from school and activities, lack of social connectedness — that risk goes up. So does the likelihood of increased drug and alcohol use, overdoses and addiction, especially among so many who were already struggling with mental health issues before this.

Let me close with some serious, not flippant, words. The mental health fallout of isolation can be profound. And teens may die, unless we find a way to help them navigate these crazy times. The way forward is through support and acknowledgment, and using each other and our community resources to get through this.

Emily J. Blomme is a mother of three young adults and CEO of Foundation 2 Crisis Services.

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