COVID-19 has brought many challenges to families across America, including lack of control and fear of the unknown. IWF’s EVP Amber Schwartz and retired psychiatric nurse Marlene Mieske discuss the psychological toll of COVID-19 and the importance of keeping things in perspective.

She Thinks Podcast ยท COVID-19: Keeping Perspective

Transcript

Beverly Hallberg:

Hey everyone, it’s Beverly Hallberg. Welcome to a special pop-up episode of She Thinks, your favorite podcast from the Independent Women’s Forum, where we talk with women and sometimes men, about the policy issues that impact you and the people you care about most. Enjoy.

Amber:

Hi, I’m Amber Schwartz. I’m the Executive Vice President of Independent Women’s Forum. On the line with me today is a great friend of IWF, and a friend of mine personally, Marlene Mieske. Marlene has an impressive background in psychiatric nursing, and I know she will offer us a really interesting perspective today on the psychological effects of COVID-19, and how to deal with all of this. I think it will be a little different than what some of you have heard or reading. And I’m excited for the conversation. Before we get started, I want to recommend everyone go to iwf.org, after listening to this podcast, and search Marlene’s name. We actually did a champion woman profile of Marlene in 2016, and it’s very inspiring. And it’s an interesting read. Marlene’s passion for psychiatric nursing and helping people is certainly inspiring. And her experience is exceptional, including serving as Director of Psychiatric Nursing at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. So with that, welcome to the podcast, Marlene, I’m so happy to have you join me today.

Marlene:

Thank you, Amber. I’m happy to be here. It was an unexpected thing to do while I’m sitting home all day. But Amber caught me at a good moment. She had emailed me and asked me to do this, and I was probably in the middle of a rant about psychiatric care in New York City.

Amber:

Well, I’m looking forward to this conversation we’re going to have for the next little bit.

Marlene:

First let me just say, what I’m going to talk about today. I am in no way dismissing people who have true diagnosed psychiatric illness of anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar illness, obsessive compulsive illness, schizophrenia. I’m not really here to talk about that, but what I will say, certainly if one does have any of those diagnosis, that’s really an important thing to know about. And you should always be checking with your doctor, and particularly with COVID-19, one of my favorite words, probably could trigger your illness even more so. So it’s important that you stay with your medication, or your cognitive behavioral treatment and your doctor. But that’s really not my focus today.

Amber:

Yeah. Well, I appreciate that disclaimer very much. I’m in agreement on that completely. And I am to ask you maybe a little later, a quick question about that. But I appreciate you saying that right up front.

Marlene:

Yes. And I should probably also add, I am someone who truly believes in psychopharmacology and therapy. They both work, but they’re individually. So I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about more, the American public response to COVID-19 in terms of, I have seen an onslaught of articles about how do we handle this anxiety? I can’t go shopping. I can’t get my nails done. I can’t get my hair done. And every department of psychiatry has published something about how to deal with this anxiety, almost as if it is a real illness. And I’m seeing it from the point of view, as I’m an individual, I have just been confronted with circumstances that I don’t like, that I might be afraid of, or angry about, or put in a position that I’ve never been in before. And my concern is that everybody just sees it as this terrible anxiety producing, telling people, start doing your yoga or all of these things. I’ve read article after article about … And anything I would say you’ve already read, set up a structure for yourself, have a routine, be calm, speak to your children.

I’m coming from it more from a point of view of what the hell is wrong with you? This is difficult, there’s no question. And for some people more difficult than others, particularly if there’s financial issues, or you don’t have help with your children. We have faced in this country and in this world every day, things way more difficult than this. I always think about every World War II movie I’ve seen, or Vietnam series, and what people had to encounter in those times. And people are acting as if we are about to fall apart as a nation and as a people.

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

So, for me, what I rant about daily, is I am not sick. I might be troubled. I may be unsettled. I think those are more the words that we’re all feeling. Kind of unsettled. This isn’t life as we know it.

Marlene:

Troubled, like what’s next, what’s going to happen? And for many people, as this goes on, starting to get really angry.

Marlene:

Anger about someone’s telling me I can’t go down and into a store without a mask on. So I think there is nothing wrong with feeling angry, troubled, unsettled, anxious. I know some days I’ve awakened, and I usually have a schedule, and just some days I just don’t feel like doing it.

Marlene:

That doesn’t mean I’m suffering from a mental illness.

Amber:

Yeah. Right. Yeah, it’s funny. I I’m of the demographic where I have a lot of friends that have kids right now, and me, myself, I’ve got two kids, a seven and a 10 year old. I work full time for IWS, fortunately from home. So income hasn’t been impacted at this point. My husband’s suddenly home, full time. I’ve got a active retriever puppy. I’m a short order cook. And let’s not forget that I’m also a full time teacher. But I’m constantly telling myself that it’s really not that bad. And I should be grateful for what I have and I’m not sick. And so far my loved ones are not sick, and have a lot to be thankful for at this time.

Marlene:

Yeah. But sometimes that doesn’t work, you can still have a bad day.

Amber:

Absolutely. But I always try to keep things in perspective. I think that’s the important thing here, is to keep it in perspective.

Marlene:

Keep it in perspective. Take a step back. Think about what you’ve gone through in the past, or what other people have gone through.

Amber:

Right.

Marlene:

We’re fine.

But when you’re reading and watching and listening, to a media that is going on constantly about how to handle your depression, how to handle your anxiety, what to do. My God. And I’m thinking, hey ladies, come on. We’re a lot stronger than that. We can handle it. And it is difficult. Just a little bit from my family background. I’ve got a daughter-in-law who I adore, and has three children. And she’s tough as nails and qualified for American Ninja. She’s been paralyzed by this.

And I spend at least one to three phone calls a day. She has a husband who’s working, and he works 18 hours a day. So it is overwhelming. What’s finally working for her now, she can get back to the gym. She can go running.

Amber:

Yeah. She’s got a little bit more control.

Marlene:

She’s got more control. And that’s what it’s about, when I sit here and think, you’re really telling me I can’t go in and buy some baby clothes for my new grandson?

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

It’s frustrating. I don’t know if I’m being clear. I guess what I’m saying, what I’ve been concerned about, is how our society has become overwhelmed with a sense that, Oh my God, the kids aren’t okay. I’m not okay. Instead of giving us a little support and strength that you are okay.

Amber:

Yeah. Right.

Marlene:

And you can move forward, and your life is not coming to an end. It’s just a little different right now.

Amber:

Right. I think what you said earlier about things someone like me can do to make the situation a little bit better, is have a routine, or eat healthy, exercise, like all of the drink less. Right? All of the things that you should do, that makes sense. Yeah, exactly right. We talked about that earlier.

Marlene:

Yes. I think there’s no question, you provide structure. What do we know about raising children? They need structure. They [crosstalk 00:09:24].

Amber:

Absolutely.

Marlene:

They need to know what’s coming next. What can I depend on?

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

Who can I depend on? And it’s the same for us?

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

I have a friend who lives in Colorado. And when she lived in New York, we had coffee together every single day. That was our routine. When she moved, we said, “My God, how can we not have coffee together?” Well, we have definite coffee apart appointments, five days out of seven. I grab a cup of coffee, she grabs a cup of coffee, and we sit on the phone and talk.

There’s no reason why we can’t do the same routines we did before. If we can’t go shopping, we can at least go for a walk.

Or think about what you’re going to buy.

Amber:

Right.

Marlene:

So, I cannot emphasize enough, but you can read it anywhere, structure, structure, structure.

Amber:

I’ve definitely been trying to do that with my kids. But I had a really funny conversation with my daughter this morning actually. I was talking to her in preparation for this podcast, because I feel like talking to my kids is really important too. Because they often hear in the background the news, it’s just COVID, COVID, COVID. And it might be a bigger deal in their mind than it is in mine, or you just have to communicate. But I asked my daughter this morning, “Ella, how are you doing? How are you feeling right now? And how are you feeling about being home?” And she looks at me and she goes, “It’s just terrible.” And I said, “Well, why?” She’s 10? And I said, “Why is it terrible, Ella?” And she said, “Because I have to spend so much time with my brother.”

Marlene:

That sounds about right.

Amber:

Yeah. So it’s just funny.

Marlene:

How old is she?

Amber:

Another thing that’s perspective. She’s 10. So I was actually relieved to hear her say that, rather than it be something more devastating, but it’s definitely an interesting time.

Marlene:

That’s always difficult with children, because certainly your children should always be given an opportunity to express what they’re feeling.

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

At the same time, we have to be very careful that we’re not projecting our feelings onto them.

Amber:

Yeah. You and I talked a few days ago, about this podcast actually. And you had talked a little bit about wellbeing and living well. I loved what you said. So just to change gears a bit, and I think I sent you this stat already, but I read that the American Psychiatric Association recently polled Americans, and found that more than one third reported that the pandemic effected their mental wellbeing. I laughed at this when I read it, because I think that number would be 100%, frankly, because who is this not impacting? But I guess it’s how you define wellbeing. But I’d love your reaction to that statistic, and what you said about living well.

Marlene:

What was the percentage again?

Amber:

Well, they said one third reported the pandemic affecting mental wellbeing. So I guess that could be a good stat.

Marlene:

Yeah, I would say that’s pretty good.

Amber:

Yeah. I know.

Marlene:

Yeah, I think that’s pretty good. And I think that speaks to most Americans, unless you live in New York City. And then they’ve all panicked out of their minds.

Amber:

Right. You normally live in New York City. Are you there now?

Marlene:

Actually, we are fortunate to have a house about an hour and 10 minutes outside of the city in Westchester.

Amber:

Okay.

Marlene:

So, I’m in the middle of the woods.

Amber:

All right. A little bit away from the chaos.

Marlene:

Right. Well there’s no chaos because there’s nothing there. It’s empty. It’s almost frightening, it’s so empty.

I would suggest. And for those of us who are able to live where we can look outside and see trees, that, that’s probably the thing that contributes most to wellbeing.

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

If you can get outside and be in nature, even if it’s just your backyard, there is something really incredibly helpful to be around nature. It just calms you down. That has really helped us. And my friends who are still in the city, they say it’s just terrible, because there’s sadness everywhere, because everything’s closed. Really in New York right now, you really do believe we have been hit. It’s almost like 9/11 in a sense. That the streets are empty. Nobody [crosstalk 00:13:45], everything’s quiet. The subways are getting better. So I do think it is individual.

I do think it’s where you are and who you’re surrounded by, makes a huge difference in wellness. If you’re in a neighborhood where all your friends are there. My children live in Texas. The same daughter-in-law lives on an incredible street, where everybody knows everybody and the doors are still unlocked. And they have a delivery truck. You put your water in, they all get together across their driveways. And the truck comes along and provides drinks. And it’s not so much the alcohol. It you’re still living in that neighborhood where you can see your friends and your friend’s children, even if you’re not three feet away from them.

So I think the whole aspect of wellness is individual, depends where you live. It depends what your supports are. I don’t really have much family around except my husband, and that’s lonely. But get outside.

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

Have that cup of coffee. Try to stop that two glasses of wine.

Amber:

Yeah. Well, believe it or not, we’re almost at the end of our time, but I do want to bring up what you actually said in the beginning. And that is, there are obviously a lot of people in real isolation, and I think long-term that can have an impact on a lot of people.

Marlene:

Absolutely.

Amber:

Particular people with mental illness already. But I do think it can be really hard on people. But I’ve talked to friends that are dealing with kids that are showing signs of depression or that thing, but with your experience, is there things that we could be looking out for with people we love and care about, like signs of depression, or what we can do to help if we think something is wrong?

Marlene:

Well, I think one of the first things you should always look for is changes in sleep habits.

Amber:

Okay.

Marlene:

Any kind of sleep disturbance is usually worth considering.

Amber:

Okay.

Marlene:

Changes in sleep, unable to sleep, getting up three or four times a night, waking up early. Now some of that may be because we’re just not as active.

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

We’re not doing that. But I would be concerned about that, loss of appetite, just not interested in eating anymore. Clearly I think most of us are overeating these days. Because we’re having [crosstalk 00:16:27] at home and it’s all we can do.

Amber:

Absolutely.

Marlene:

I would always look for change in attitude, and just real sadness you can see in someone’s face. And if you’re noticing it, most people will deny it. But if you can just reach out to them, and maybe talk about how you feel. Often, if you can talk about how you feel about how this is affecting you, it gives an opportunity to reach out to them.

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

For people that you really can’t see, maybe an older person that’s not right around you, just staying in touch is so important.

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

And to someone much older, sending a card or even a note, because that’s sort of a generational thing. I mean, we can get on the phone with people or Zoom, FaceTime is wonderful if they have a cell phone.

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

And have mastered it. I’ve had to do this with a friend of mine who’s in assisted living. And trying to talk her into how to do FaceTime is impossible.

Amber:

Yeah.

Marlene:

You kind of have to be there.

Amber:

Been there. Yeah.

Marlene:

Right. But just keep reaching out to people. Don’t get turned off if they don’t offer anything. I think that’s the one thing when you’re reaching out to someone and you don’t get much of a response …

Amber:

There could be cause for concern? yeah.

Marlene:

It’s still sometimes just keeps reaching out, because it might have a bigger effect than you realize.

Amber:

Yeah. True.

Marlene:

Because someone is still thinking of them and caring about them, and reaching out to them.

But there is one thing that I want to say about the mental illness piece that I think I mentioned to you, and I have to get this in there.

Amber:

Yes, absolutely. We’ll close with that.

Marlene:

We are all concerned with your average American, who’s really having a tough time now, and maybe having to deal with problems they’d never considered before. What I am appalled by, and again, I’m speaking New York City, but it’s probably true in LA, Chicago, Miami. We are so concerned about whether someone is anxious. We have seriously mentally ill people all over the place. And particularly in New York, there’s been a lot of publicity because they’re riding the subways and they’re homeless and they’re all over. And people are frightened. We are so concerned about mild anxiety. And we have people who have documented brain disease. And all we can think of is, my God, they’re so disgusting. I don’t want to get on the subway with these people.

If we could take a step back and realize these people are suffering, and we as a society look the other way all the time. And now they’re just a big problem. And they are a problem. I’m not diminishing that. But I think that’s where my rant started the other day with my husband, that there’s so much being written now about how to deal with the anxiety of COVID-19. And at the same time, everything’s being written about these terrible people that are crowding your subways and on the streets, and they’re so dirty and scary. These are people with an illness.

Marlene:

And so once again, I question, where are our values and concerns, and where are we putting our priorities?

Amber:

Yeah. That’s a good point. I appreciate you making it.

Marlene:

So that’s part of my frustration with all of this. Not that people aren’t suffering, because they are, our whole world has been turned upside down. Everything I had planned for the summer is gone pretty much.

Amber:

Right.

Marlene:

But this is when you take a step back and look at, it’s so easy to write about, well, if you’re depressed, just read a book.

Marlene:

There are people out there who are truly suffering, and we just want them out of our sight.

Amber:

Yeah. Right. Thank you for bringing that up. People need to be aware.

Marlene:

Well, it’s another one of those ways we can take a step back and take a look at our lives, and rethink our priorities.

Amber:

Yep. I think we’re going to have to stop there just because of time, but I do really appreciate you coming on today.

Marlene:

I hope it was helpful.

Amber:

It was helpful. And just for a little plug for IWF before this ends, I feel like, kind of goes along with this. Because honestly, to get America back, we’ve got to start working again. And we’ve got to get back. And so we’ve been working on ways to learn from this pandemic, and create more prepared, resilient, and an innovative society. And we have some recommendations for that, that we just released on our website, if people want to take a look.

Marlene:

I think that’s what I’m really trying to say. We need to become strong individuals, in charge of our own lives and our families.

Amber:

Exactly.

Marlene:

And move out and help this country take over again.

Amber:

Amen. Well, thanks again for your time, Marlene and for everyone for listening today. Hang in there everybody. And I’m wishing you all safety and good health.