Phelps: The pandemic’s emotional toll

Dr. Harriet Phelps

School is in session and, hopefully, a routine has been established and the children are adjusting well. But there may be concerns that loom on the horizon for youngsters and adults alike.

Current statistics are troublesome, especially for our youth. With the COVID-19 interruptions over the past two years, the most recent national and state statistics are from 2020. But if those numbers mean anything, we are going to need to pay attention to emotional stress for everyone, regardless of their age. We cannot ignore the symptoms and need healthy skills and a healthy response to cope with emotional pain.

In 2020, there were 49 suicides in Arizona by children 17 or younger, an increase of 30% from 2019.

It was reported recently that Chandler’s school district has taken a proactive approach to educate and provide resources for parents and youth to get help before desperate acts occur. In the same report, the parents of a suicide victim expressed their desire that no one goes through what they experienced mentally or in burying their child.

How do things get out of control?
It all starts with stress. There is fallout when our stressors become too elevated, and we do not know how to handle the tension or anxiety. As a society, we have begun to recover from the pandemic and the damage it’s done to every part of our lives.

Our basic needs — food, water, shelter and clothing — have been jeopardized as we’ve tried to battle through the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Tension can be subtle and felt by every member of the family no matter their age.

No one is immune, and regardless of whether we have a label for what we feel, stress energy is prevalent. Like the proverbial pressure-cooker, at some point the lid is going to blow.

There are two types of stress: “Eustress” comes from pleasant experiences, normal or moderate, and “distress” is potentially harmful from more unpleasant experiences. Moderate or normal amounts of distress can prove to be experiences from which we enjoy or can manage the outcome and might even prove beneficial down the road.

When stressors become more difficult to deal with and last longer, the cumulative effect is a build-up of tension. The inability to de-stress in a healthy way may lead to other methods, including comfort foods, obsessive hobbies, spending money, gambling, sexual activity and substance use. In many cases, these answers are a double-edged sword. Sometimes these methods can lead to addiction and even more stress.


Harriet Phelps, Psy.D., is a volunteer with Be Awesome Youth Coalition.

This content was first published in the September edition of InMaricopa magazine.