Dr. Michael Axelrod ’89 has almost three decades of experience in the mental health profession. As a child clinical psychologist, school psychologist, and now as a professor at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, his background in mental health and research lends a unique perspective on the current COVID-19 crisis. While most have been preoccupied with the physical toll inflicted by the virus, there is another very real danger—to mental health.
Dr. Axelrod has seen changes in mental health from the very beginning. “At first, there was a lot of ambiguity and fear. For kids (from adolescents and teens to college-aged children), it revolves around things like, ‘can I play a sport this spring or will I have my concert?’ That ambiguity caused a lot of panic. We saw a lot of worry and fear in our on-campus clinic (at the University of Wisconsin), but once people started to understand that this wasn’t temporary, things started to change,” he explains. Acceptance, that things were not going to change very soon and that things would look different when they did, has helped. “People started understanding that graduations, weddings, etc. were not going to happen.” Despite acceptance, Dr. Axelrod is quick to point out the importance of grieving the loss. “The devastation of loss is tremendous. It’s certainly different than someone losing a loved one, and we’re not comparing it to that, but it’s still important. People are still losing out on things they were looking forward to, like college graduations, sports seasons, etc.”
How do you reconcile that loss? “By understanding the grieving process and the different stages of grieving. Also, reaching out to social supports is critical.” As for parents guiding their children through these changes, he offers this bit of advice: “We always want to communicate to our kids that we are listening, and that we are trying to understand what they are going through. Rather than saying ‘don’t worry’ or ‘you’ll have other experiences like this,’ it is important to reflect upon those feelings of sadness, disappointment, anger, and grief.”
Dr. Axelrod, who now sees his patients virtually, understands the impact this pandemic has had on families and counsels them to tread lightly. His advice varies based on age. For younger children, he suggests communicating reasons. “Tell them why schools are closed and why they can’t visit their friends or family—that public health officials are trying to keep everybody safe.” As for older children and teens who are on social media or hear the news, his suggestion is to help kids understand the difference between fact and fiction. He also prescribes routine. “Keep them active, busy, and in a routine. It’s one of the beauties of social media now that there are so many great ideas available to help keep busy.”
As for his advice for parents? “We tell parents to make sure you’re ok. You’re not going to be able to help your child in any capacity if you’re not ok. But ok means you don’t have to be better than ok. Just do ok.” He also cautions parents to keep their expectations reasonable. “Parents are busy with work commitments and trying to corral kids and get them to engage in remote learning. I’m telling parents to have minimal expectations. It’s not absolutely critical that you are your child’s teacher. What you are is a manager right now.”
While the long-term effects on mental health are yet to be determined, Dr. Axelrod has already seen a silver lining. “It stands out to me how people have come together. I think about the different types of acknowledgements of our healthcare workers, like in New York City how everyone claps every night at 7:00 p.m., and the community outreach to those in need of food and shelter.” It may be a difficult time, but we are learning how to navigate it. “For many of us, this is a time when we’re learning to be more flexible, learning to problem solve in different ways, and learning to connect socially in different ways. It is helping us to become more resilient.”