Caregivers for people with mental health conditions face added challenges during the pandemic
Climbing onto her blue Yamaha sports motorcycle and taking a long drive is one of the tools Ursula Martinez, a single mother of three, uses to cope with the periodic stress of supporting her children who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions.
“If it’s the weekend and the weather is warm enough I’ll get on my motorcycle, I’ll write sometimes, I’ve gone to the movies alone just to get away,” Martinez said. “It’s just a lot of just taking myself away because my problem is (over) thinking. When I have too much time to think it’s not good. So I have to keep myself busy.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, now reaching one year since cases began to spread in El Paso, has exacerbated mental health issues for many families. Local mental health experts said El Pasoans who have family members affected by mental health conditions need to remember to prioritize self care to be able to continue to support their loved ones.
“I can’t stress it enough: we can’t take care of others if we really don’t take care of ourselves first,” said Isidro Torres, executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, or NAMI El Paso.
NAMI El Paso offers resources such as support groups and classes for adult family members, caregivers and friends of adults living with a mental health condition. Torres said the organization is currently offering several of its resources online until it is safe for in-person activities.
Torres said with the ongoing pandemic, it is normal to feel stressed and anxious and it is especially important for caregivers to acknowledge how they are feeling.
“It’s taking that time to check in with yourself, and (ask yourself) how are you feeling and validating, you know, today I’m really frustrated, today I am really angry and I just need to express it and I need to let it out,” Torres said.
Torres said acknowledging emotions, communication and setting clear boundaries with loved ones are ways to manage the strain that can be caused by dealing with mental health issues during the pandemic.
Martinez said her children 10-year-old Santiago, 16-year-old John and 21-year-old Isabelle each have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, at varying degrees. She said Isabelle and John also have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and social anxiety and Isabelle also has Asperger syndrome.
“I know there’s a job to do as a parent and that I need to concentrate on them. I guess it doesn’t really pull me down,” Martinez said. “I just try to make sure that they’re where they should be, that they’re taking their meds, that they know that they can come to me for anything.”
Martinez, who also has social anxiety, said she didn’t have support from her parents growing up and didn’t feel she could communicate with them, so she makes sure her children feel supported. She said she also realizes that she needs to step away periodically to make sure she takes care of herself.
She relies on various methods of self care, but one of her main escapes is the gym.
“The gym is my medicine. The gym keeps me sane,” Martinez said, adding that she exercises about six times a week.
She said she also reaches out to trusted friends if she needs to vent. She’ll sometimes close and lock her bedroom door to watch shows or play games on her phone to clear her head. She is also learning to play the guitar.
Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado, division chief for the psychiatry consult service at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said other ways those caring for family members or loved ones with mental health conditions can take care of themselves are to take at least one hour of time to themselves, adhere to a schedule and routine, exercise, eat healthy and get a good night’s sleep.
Delgado said those steps can be challenging to balance with daily life. He likens self-care to boarding an airplane.
“They tell you right away, first you put the mask on yourself, and then you help your children or whoever’s next to you,” Delgado said. “You need to take care of yourself, because otherwise you’re not going to be able to take care of your family member, and they do require extra support.”
Delgado said the amount of people seeking help for mental health issues has fluctuated with the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases in El Paso. He said there has currently been an increase in the weeks following the November surge.
Dr. Sarah Martin, child and adolescent division chief at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said she has seen that many children have adjusted in the months since the pandemic began.
“I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised, and of course, children do adjust better,” Martin said, adding that parents still appear to be having a hard time. “They’re the ones that are probably worrying more than the kids are.”
Martin said she has seen that children with conditions such as anxiety or ADHD have done better since classes switched to online instruction because the stress of having to be in school has been removed.
“One positive thing that I’ve noticed is that kids don’t have to be around other kids that don’t like them anymore. Especially in a public school, but even a private school — anytime you get a group of kids together, they’re not all going to get along and so that sometimes leads to bullying,” Martin said.
Claudia Bouchacourt, whose 13-year-old son has autism, said her son has not been struggling with the changes brought on by the pandemic.
Bouchacourt said her son has always done well in the school setting, but quickly adjusted to being at home.
“I think that he’s naturally really intelligent, and that he’s naturally a conscientious person … but for someone like him he could take it or leave it — being around kids,” Bouchacourt said.
She said there have been challenges, but her son’s day-to-day life has not been negatively impacted.
“He’s loving it, which in turn makes my job super easy,” she said.
Bouchacourt said she does practice self-care such as making sure her schedule is organized, as well as doing exercise and meditations.
Cover photo: Claudia Bouchacourt uses the trails at Westside Community Park for exercise and relaxation. Bouchacourt believes that online learning has benefited her son’s mental health. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)