Supporting mental health during the pandemic

  • Written by Erica Cohen Moore
  • Published in Commentary
A student at Seattle’s Our Lady of the Lake School practices mindfulness by gently keeping a balloon in the air during the school’s Mental Health and Movement Monday. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady of the Lake School A student at Seattle’s Our Lady of the Lake School practices mindfulness by gently keeping a balloon in the air during the school’s Mental Health and Movement Monday. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady of the Lake School

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental illness impacts 1 in 5 Americans, indicating that this is a widespread issue that affects all communities. One in 25 adults in America live with a serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth and young adults ages 10–24. And all this is before you factor in the impact of a global pandemic.

For the last eight years, the Archdiocese of Seattle, through its Mental Health Ministry Committee, has sought to educate parish and school communities on mental health and reduce the stigma for those suffering from mental illness. Among its many offerings are workshops on suicide prevention and mental health first aid trainings that equip people to respond appropriately to situations where mental illness may be in play. The ministry hopes to use this Mental Health Awareness Month to amplify resources and practices that improve mental health.

Our Lady of the Lake School in Seattle has taken seriously the need to foster mental health support during the pandemic. The school organized a virtual Mental Health and Movement Monday for all its students, preschool through eighth grade. The day was filled with activities aimed at improving personal well-being. Students learned about finding calm moments and mindful exercises. Students did creative projects to help express themselves in positive ways. One student practiced mindfulness by gently keeping a balloon in the air. Another made a cube with sides indicating different feelings such as “grateful” and “loving life.” Still another found wellness via sidewalk chalk and the sharing of a hopeful message.

Each grade had a scheduled Zoom call with the school counselor, Katie Denniston, to check in and learn about staying physically and emotionally healthy during this time of quarantine. “All feelings are valid,” Denniston said, “and in order to stay emotionally healthy, we need to reach out to others when we need help, be it in big or small ways.” Parents expressed deep gratitude for the event, noting that the activities helped emphasize positivity and served as a perfect way to return from spring break.

OLL’s Mental Health and Movement event is timely for multiple reasons. For one, it directly speaks to an intensified need for self-care due to the pandemic that has isolated so many. Secondly, it came just before May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S.

Sandy Barton Smith, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools and a member of the archdiocesan mental health committee, applauded the efforts of Our Lady of the Lake. “Events like OLL’s Mental Health and Movement Monday are of paramount importance, especially now,” she said. “This issue affects all of our students, faculty and staff, parents and communities, and — if not addressed — small things can become more serious.” She hopes that this initiative can be replicated at other schools and parishes.

As Catholics, we continue to be in communion with one another, caring for all people, especially our brothers and sisters living with mental illness. During Mental Health Awareness Month, the archdiocesan Mental Health Ministry Committee invites you, your family, your parish and school community to continue to pray for all people impacted by mental health and find creative ways to practice mental wellness, like our students and staff at Our Lady of the Lake School!

As stay-at-home orders continue during the pandemic, enthusiasm for online events seems to be waning, but not in this case. “This was the best distance learning day yet,” exclaimed one OLL student, “and I hope for another one again soon!”

Erica Cohen Moore is the Archdiocese of Seattle’s director of pastoral ministries.