What We’re All Navigating

“We all need to expect about 40% less productivity from each other than normal and yet someone everyone seems to expect 140% right now. — Robin Thede

“ Pandemic’s emotional hammer hits hard: Pandemic depression hits 25% of Americans, study says.” NPR news , 9/2/2020

This week, I watched as families and children started a new school year remotely. With a son in middle school, I had a personal as well as professional front row seat to the educational experiment our nation is conducting on a wing and a prayer and with a lot of advance planning and learning on the part of teachers.

I see a lot of adults worried about whether children are falling behind and whether educational losses may be irreparable. If you don’t learn algebra in the 9th grade, are you lost forever from the wonders of the quadratic equation? More worrisomely, if you can’t see other children in groups at age 10, will you ever learn to have a conversation and navigate a social life?

We’re all worried about what our children are losing, and naturally so, but the headers of this post resonate with me as I see my own child doing school from our guest bedroom. As a school year begins, we feel that we should have moved beyond the cliche of “unprecedented times” and that we should have somehow now embraced “the new normal.”

The finding that 25% of us now have significant depressive symptoms says maybe we haven’t moved beyond our fears just yet. This is significant for education and educators, because mental health mitigates our competencies. When we are struggling, we also struggle with tasks that would normally be easy.

I watched this truth in action this week as my son learned to work the online systems for his online school experience. For students who are used to going ‘to” school, going to a computer in their home is like beginning again at kindergarten. There are a thousand procedures and tasks to be learned, and that’s anxiety-making. Anxiety leads to mistakes. In online assessments designed to measure what he already knows, I watched my son’s frustration grow as he made what he called “dumb mistakes.” He knew the answers, but his fingers clicked on the wrong choice or his mouse zoomed through multiple questions at once. Looking at his results, an educator might think that he didn’t have the background knowledge they would expect from an experienced middle schooler.

It’s not knowledge that he lacks: worry and sadness depress his competence. When you’re worried about mastering a new system, when you’re depressed about a world where you can’t see your friends, when your parents can’t tell you honestly that they know how all this is going to turn out, worries take up mental space that could normally be devoted to pressing the right button on a keyboard or to retrieving knowledge about geography.

It’s not only children who struggle. We adults are in the same boat. How many of us have made dumb mistakes since March? Too many dropped glasses shattered on the kitchen floor? Hurting a friend’s feelings by blurting out something unkind? Forgetting tasks on your to-do list.

When I saw Robin Thede’s tweet about productivity, I shouted “Yes!” I screenshot it. I sent the photo to friends. I posted it on social media. While 2020 is a undoubtedly a time for heroism, for pluck, and for determination, we need to recognize that we’re going to make a lot of mistakes because we’re aiming for the heroic as our depression draws us into mistakes, errors, and lost “productivity.”

Depression is nothing new to me. I’ve struggled with it for most of my adult life. To those folks joining this club during the pandemic, I say welcome and it’s probably going to be okay. If your depression stems from this unprecedented place — yes, I’ll say “unprecedented”— you won’t feel this way forever. Some of us, though, are wired from the get-go for this illness. That’s me, and I’ve learned a lot about being depressed over the last two decades. Here are some things that have helped me all along and that still help me in 2020.

— “Worry about today’s problem today.” — That’s what Elly’s pediatrician told me in 2002 when I was spiraling from postpartum depression. I couldn’t stop thinking about how her prematurity would affect her life. His statement helped me get on the road to therapy and medication treatment so that I could feel better in the present, rather than borrowing worry for 15 years down the road. If I could have accurately foreseen all the struggles that would happen because of her prematurity, it would have floored me. Focusing on the present allowed me to get through to the time when we would face those problems.

— “Find something to laugh about every day.” — My first therapist prescribed funny TV for me. I was to watch or listen to something funny every day, whether I wanted to laugh or whether it made me laugh. I was to put funny material into my brain until eventually I felt like laughing. People are now shocked when I say that humor is part of the moral structure of my universe, when I always list humor as one of my top values during team building exercises at work. I believe that laughter has saved me. I don’t know how it works. Neurologists could probably tell us, but I know that it’s not wrong to look for ways to laugh even when the world is bleak.

— “Walk” — Put on your runners and get some miles under your feet. Our bodies are made to move, and our minds work better when we do. I can almost promise that I’m the least coordinated person you know. If you watched me attempt any sport, you’d be able to meet your daily goal of finding something to laugh about every day. And still the act of walking from one place to another and back home again lifts my spirits.

— Get help — I’ve been on medication for over 18 years. I never won’t be. Depression is part of the way my brain works and is made. Somehow, some sad cave people managed to reproduce themselves thousands of years ago, and somehow, their sad cave children survived. That wiring has persisted down through me. Medication is the reason why most of you reading this don’t know that I struggle from depression.

So all of this is just to say, let’s lend each other— and our children — kindness and grace during the pandemic and during pandemic schooling. It is a hard and sad time. It’s absolutely normal to feel scared, sad, and worried. It’s normal to make mistakes when we’re under that cloud of worry. Let’s give each other a break.

Don’t let yourself or your loved one get to the point of being in danger from how sad you’re feeling. Seek help for yourself and for those you love. The National Suicide Hotline is 800-273-8255. Depression is a serious illness. Don’t let it take you out.