Brittney Thomas was fighting for her life.
The 25-year-old woman had struggled with depression and mental illness for some time. She was living in Frankfort in April, staying with friends while trying to get back to her family in Bowling Green.
Depression and mental illness is enough to deal with in the best of times, on the best days.
According to her social media posts and her family, Brittney was dealing with a lot more. She was working as an EMT, a job she loved but gave up because she was tired of her co-workers having to make up for her.
She lost her apartment, so she was staying with friends. She lost a lot of her possessions to thieves, according to her posts.
She couldn’t have regular contact with her friends, as people were urged to stay home and be socially distant to prevent spreading the coronavirus.
Thomas’ uncle Kevin Thomas said all those things likely played a role in her disappearance April 22 and her death a week later. Her body was found in a wooded area in Frankfort April 28. Police did not suspect foul play in her death.
“A lot happened at one time,” he said previously. “That’s a lot for anyone to handle.”
Kevin Thomas said Brittney had fought her mental illness and was on medication to combat its effects. Getting the treatment right, he said, was difficult, but Brittney knew what she was up against.
“Her wish was to keep it from happening to another family,” he said. “Mental illness is real. She was fighting it.”
According to Mental Health America, 1 in 5 people, or 20%, will experience mental illness during their lifetime.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic isn’t helping. An April 21 poll by The Henry J. Kaiser Foundation showed 45% of adults in the United States said their mental health has been negatively impacted by worry and stress over COVID-19. The toll is not expected to improve.
“As the pandemic wears on, it is likely the mental health burden will increase as measures taken to slow the spread of the virus, such as social distancing, business and school closures, and shelter-in-place orders, lead to greater isolation and potential financial distress,” the report reads.
The Kaiser poll also found that those sheltering-in-place have a higher rate of negative effects (47%) than those who are not (37%). More than half of those who lost jobs or income reported negative mental health results, and rates were higher in lower income people.
Social isolation may have a bigger impact, from children not being able to go to school and see their friends, to older people who can’t see their family or caregivers. Contact has often been reduced to online video meetings or phone calls.
With schools and child care facilities closed, parents are forced to assume the role of teacher often while working from home themselves. The stress level is beyond high.
“Parents are under a great deal of stress,” Franklin County Health Department HANDS Manager Shannan Rome said, between dealing with children, their own work situation and the uncertainty of the virus. “It’s a lot to manage.”
The HANDS program works with parents of children up to age 2 in adjusting to life as parents.
There is plenty to stress about, she said, from children needing attention to child care as businesses reopen. Parents can struggle with wanting child care to reopen while worrying about sending their child back.
“A lot of it is that nagging anxiety about health and exposure,” she said. “Just being stuck at home with little ones is tough.”
Rome suggested giving children bits of focused time throughout the day, where parents make time to do something with children absent of screens and technology, even if it’s just a reassuring word or an extra snuggle.
“Uncertainty is stressful for everyone,” Rome said. “Giving a hopeful message to your child is important.”
Children of all ages pick up on the world situation, even if they don’t completely understand what is going on.
Cindi Fulton, a therapist in private practice in Frankfort who works with children from age 2 through teens, said younger children may repeat the words but not understand. Teens can show either extreme, from feeling invincible to being scared to death of the virus.
One young child told Fulton he heard 20 people died from the virus. Twenty is as high as he could count, and that was everyone he knew, she said.
Suicide has crept in as well.
“I would have a lot of sessions with little bitties where they said, ‘Mommy said she would kill herself and I don’t know what to do,'” Fulton said. “I’ve done a lot of suicide assessments, not of the kids but the parents. That’s been incredibly rough.”
Through her clients, Fulton said she has seen the increase in domestic violence.
“You have people who can’t go to work,” she said.
She said some parents have admitted cheating on their spouse but being stressed about not being able to maintain that extra relationship because of the pandemic.
“A lot of issues that were underlying are coming to the front,” she said.
Fulton said she has seen more incidents of children sneaking out or running away, as well.
“There’s a ripple effect,” she said. “It’s directly connected to the virus, but it’s more connected to the effects of the virus. There’s lots of layers and its affecting so many people in different ways.”
An article published April 13 by the New England Journal of Medicine said data shows a number of outcomes from isolation including stress, depression, irritability, fear, frustration and confusion.
All those are expected responses to the situation, and the Mayo Clinic offered a number of ways to deal with them. Self-care strategies include maintaining routines and schedules as much as possible, getting regular sleep and exercise, and limiting screen time and exposure to the news. Focusing on positive things and staying busy can help as well.
“Take care of your own needs,” Rome said. “(Parents) always take care of their children first, but you can’t parent well when you’re falling apart. Prioritize your own needs. Recognize when you need to take a break. No one plans to be rough with their child.”
Staying in touch with other people is important, according to the Mayo Clinic, for each other.
There is a time, though, when the situation becomes too much and professional help is needed.
“I’ve had to say to a lot of parents, ‘Your kid needs you to be OK,” Fulton said.
Some parents never considered needing a therapist themselves, she said, but have taken that advice.
“There are mental health professionals out there,” Fulton said. “That’s our job: to be there.”
For more information, contact:
• Beaumont Behavioral Health of Frankfort, 502-875-1685
• Kentucky Counseling Center, 855-591-0092
• Mental Health America of Kentucky, www.mhaky.org