Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

An Experience in Resilience: Mental health experts offer keys to surviving these pandemic times.

Ryan Smith in his kitchen.

Everything is frozen in time inside Deb Smith’s fifth-grade classroom at Red Mill Elementary School in Etters.

The date on the board still reads, “Friday, March 13,” even though, three months later, the always highly anticipated last day of school is Friday, June 5.

“Make no mistake—our fifth graders are missing a lot of rites of passage,” said Smith, in her 25th year of teaching. “They are missing award ceremonies, concerts and ‘move-up day’ when they normally travel to the middle school for a tour. They’re anxious about it, and I don’t have all the answers.”

One of the biggest challenges in her own household is making sure her online teaching sessions don’t interrupt her son’s ninth-grade Zoom classes.

A quarantine “bright spot” was the day of a special delivery: The Red Land High School’s marching band trailer dropped off a 5-foot-long vibraphone, similar to a xylophone.

“We joke about putting a tablecloth on it and making it our dining room table,” said Smith.

Ryan, 15, said the percussion instrument adds a new activity to his “new normal.”

“I miss being at school, eating lunch with my friends,” he said. “I’m mostly staying occupied, doing puzzles, video games. I’m reading more books. I’m also learning how to cook. I made a cake and used the mixer with my mom, and my dad taught me how to make hamburgers, plus I’m mowing the lawn. One of the biggest challenges is keeping your brain engaged in positive ways.”

That challenge—to stay positive—is something Sara Houser can relate to. The 19-year-old college sophomore left her classes and Temple University apartment “abruptly” amid the pandemic in order to continue her studies online, from her Carlisle home.

“Some days are harder than others,” Houser said. “I’m just sad I can’t see my friends. On the hard days, I try to distract myself with other things.”

Her family regularly plays games, works out together, and finds “fun ways to cope.”

“I’ve always thought of myself as an introvert, but I realize through this experience that I really love and miss being around people,” Houser said. “I’ll be more grateful and appreciative of little things when we get back to normalcy.”

Little things like daily conversations mean a lot to Tricia Donley and her students.

Donley, a Mechanicsburg High School English teacher, said a number of her students regularly log into her online office hours—not because they need academic help—but because they want to talk.

“Everyone is feeling a little lonely and isolated—a lot of students are saying, ‘We love breaks and snow days, but this is a little much.’ We all miss school and the human interaction,” Donley said.

There are some bright spots. Donley has found innovative ways to stay connected to her students, such as using the app Good Reads to discuss books they’ve read while quarantined. And the school library launched virtual book clubs.

“I miss being with my students—that’s been the roughest transition,” Donley said. “We didn’t have a chance to say goodbye or conclude anything—it’s hard. I miss the human connection—that’s why I became a teacher. Right now, going online to talk with them is the highlight of my day.”


New Normal

That ability to adjust—even though it’s difficult—is one of the keys to our collective mental health through the pandemic, according to experts.

And that key can be summarized in one word: resilience.

“Resilience is really the ability for children and adolescents, as well as adults, to be able to get through a stressor or trauma and to be able to learn and grow from it, versus having negative reactions or feelings consumed by that stressor or worry,” said Jennifer Rothman, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), based outside Washington, D.C.

Resiliency is a skill typically developed during childhood and adolescence. Developing it now, during the pandemic, is perhaps the ultimate challenge for today’s youth—as well as adults who may not have had the opportunity to develop resilience in their younger years.

“Resilience comes in and plays a key role in what we’re all going to look like when we come out of this pandemic, when we’re able to go back to school, back to work and how we adapt to those additional changes,” Rothman said.

And it’s “normal” to feel anxious about all the changes we’re experiencing in our daily lives.

“People are feeling highly anxious and certainly struggling to find the new normal—it is typical to feel that way,” said Dr. Melissa Brown, a clinical psychologist with PinnacleHealth Psychological Associates in Harrisburg. “Some are feeling depressed… there are cancellations of major events, loss of jobs and changes in routines,”

Brown offered three vital pieces of advice, to help people cope at any age.

“The first thing I say to people is, ‘Find out what you can control.’ We can’t see this virus, but when we can grab onto something, it tends to calm us—our routine and schedule, eating properly and sleeping,” she said. “And make sure you’re connecting with your support systems.”

Exercise and movement are the second key components. And finding a sense of purpose, especially by helping others, is the third key. Brown advises people to seek positive activities such as delivering meals to family and friends.

Developing resilience relies on positivity, creativity and ingenuity.

“Finding alternate ways to celebrate major life milestones like a birthday is going to take a little creativity,” Brown said. “Getting creative taps into resiliency and hopefulness, trying to motivate yourself and finding the positive—that’s what I encourage people to do. Maybe it’s not getting on the plane and going to Florida, for example, but how can I bring Florida to me?”

And that’s exactly how Smith is approaching one of her fifth graders’ rites of passage.

“We’re missing our field trip to Philadelphia,” said Smith. “But our tour guides are offering virtual tours, a Constitutional walking tour of historic sites, and the kids seem really excited about it.”

PinnacleHealth Psychological Associates is located at 205 S. Front St., Harrisburg, 717-231-8360.

For information on NAMI, see; the NAMI helpline is 800-950-6264; text “NAMI” to 741741 for 24/7 confidential, free crisis counseling.

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