With restrictions brought on by COVID-19, many people are working from home and unable to gather in-person with friends and family. This isolation can lead to mental health issues as people struggle to create new routines in the absence of normal human interactions.

Brenda Protz, a Lincoln Land Community College communications professor, took a medical leave due to mental health around the middle of the fall semester last year after switching to teaching online. Protz chose to move her classes online out of caution due to the pandemic.

"I wanted to be in class in-person, but given the situation, it didn't seem safe to. It was really hard for me mentally to think that I had the lives of all of these other people in my hands when I'm still grieving the loss of my own daughter that I couldn't save," Protz said.

Protz said she was already struggling with her mental health prior to teaching online as she lost her daughter, Jenna Protz, her daughter's best friend and her in-laws in a car accident in November 2019.

"The grieving process by itself was bad enough, but when you attach the grieving process added in with COVID, it is a terrible mixture," Protz said. A month into her mental health leave, Protz's father died of COVID-19.

"Coronavirus has absolutely just wreaked havoc in so many people's lives, and at least from my perspective, when you add that on top of any pre-existing conditions of depression and anxiety that people may already have, it's not a good combination," Protz said. She emphasized the importance of reaching out for help. "I think that people need to have that outlet, and whether it's a therapist in conjunction with medication in dealing with some of this, I think that people need to understand that it's OK to get the help that you need," Protz said.

Another important tactic to keep in mind when coping with difficult life events is ensuring you are staying in touch with close friends who can provide you with support, Protz said. "I'm very fortunate that I have lots of friends and people that have been a part of my close-knit circle since Nov. 16, 2019, but I know that not everybody has that. I can't imagine how tough that would be."

Another struggle COVID-19 has caused is that many children are unable to attend school in-person, requiring a parent to take over their education. Chatham resident Kasey Schwartz runs a food and family lifestyle blog called All Things Mamma and was working from home prior to COVID-19, but she still faced challenges when her children's schooling moved online.

Schwartz said she was originally given a choice about whether her kids would go in-person or online, but she chose online because she expected schools to periodically shut down.

"The kids were just bored to death. My youngest, she started to really not like school anymore, and she loves school. All of my kids are great students, they all enjoy going," said Schwartz. She said her eight-year-old daughter, Sydney, seemed particularly unhappy and it was a struggle to get her to participate. "She hated just sitting there alone in a room, trying to be on Zoom, which half of the time didn't work. The teacher was extremely unorganized and the systems that they were using, it was just a disaster."

Schwartz then contacted her children's school about how the online schooling was affecting her daughter's mental health. Two of her children ended up going back to half-day in-person school, but her oldest was unable to because the high school was completely online.

Schwartz said one of her strategies to manage her children's education while she worked from home was to try to keep a schedule, while being flexible and realizing it will change. "(One minute) I am really positive and doing OK, and then I'm not. So I feel like it depends on what's going on in the news and what you're seeing more of, and I feel like it's just kind of a roller coaster," Schwartz said.

Whether the struggle is the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19, schooling children from home while trying to work or any other mental health concern, help is available. Memorial Health System is offering the Memorial Emotional Support Line to everyone, even those who are not current patients. By calling 217-588-5509 from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, people can have access to a listening ear and share their concerns in confidence.

The health care professional will provide problem-solving assistance, coping skills and validation of what the caller is thinking and feeling. Amber Olson, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health therapy, said clinicians help interested callers access ongoing therapy services in addition to follow-up calls.

"We also offer a call-back the next day, so some individuals take advantage of that," Olson said. She noted that self-care can include things such as taking baths, eating nutritious food and connecting with friends. "Reaching out to gain some emotional support is also an effective way of obtaining or following through with self-care," Olson said.

Meredith Howard is a senior journalism major at Baylor University. She is from Springfield and previously interned with Springfield Business Journal.

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