During this unprecedented time, while we are being bombarded with images of tragedy, racism and an on-going pandemic, it’s quite common to feel distressed and hopeless. But how do you know when those feelings are signs of mental illness? According to Psychiatric Registered Nurse Jennifer Esteen who is running for a district seat on the California Assembly, it is a crucial time to understand symptoms, assess your personal well-being and those closest to you.
As a healthcare professional, labor leader, and community activist, Esteen has spent years working in the mental health space. Currently she is campaigning and advocating for a well-funded health system that provides resources and access for all. She says it’s important to monitor emotions and behaviors that may lead to a decline in mental health. “People talk about taking care of yourself. But I think folks don’t always have healthy ways of doing it,” explains Esteen.
She notes that increased stress levels for a short period of time can be completely normal; however, certain behaviors may be an indication to seek professional help. “Some symptoms people should look out for are feelings of long-lasting grief or intense anxiety, constant irritability or short-tempered reactions, excess sleep, insomnia or desires for complete isolation, and excessively long hours watching TV,” continues Esteen.
There is also an increase of heightened anxiety and trauma among Black youth. “The summer of George Floyd’s murder, [our family] sat there watching and feeling so much anger and rage and sadness. My son, who is a high school, shared that he is afraid of walking down the street alone sometimes because the police might stop him, and he may end up dead. That feeling of a lack of security and safety is what I want to address” she shares. The source of this anguish is fueled by the visual trauma we witness daily. “We’re constantly assaulted by violence in the media with a loop of images of violence against our communities, with no real investment in ways to stop that violence.” Therefore, limiting screen and TV time is crucial, she adds. She advises balancing the news with “images of strength, resiliency, and community solidarity within the home so that our kids can feel like there is a way out when they are unified.”
When it comes to creating a continuous discourse among family members and kids, consistency and encouraging self-expression is paramount. “I am always trying to engage [my kids] in meaningful conversation about what’s happening in the world,” shares Esteen. “Between the amount of screen time they are exposed to combined with the underfunding of our schools, it is a tough time to raise people who are critical thinkers. So it’s important to have a lot of discussions to get a read on what the kids are seeing, thinking and feeling. It’s not easy but between that one-on-one time and communicating with their teachers and peers, this really feels like the way to understand what else is happening in their world.”
Another important tool is “impressing some kind of value system or honor code, whether it’s religious-based or not, as a part of your foundation at home. I find that that helps to solidify some set of morals—a baseline for humanity—and how we treat one another. I’m Black and Jewish, and I raised my kids in the synagogue with Sunday school. I really hope that my kids will always hold on to that, because there’s a lot coming at them these days.”