Every few sentences, Sarah Roberts takes a deep breath. She’s at home, recovering from COVID, and still doing her best to do her job from a distance.
“I was talking to another social worker friend of mine back in California today, just about how it’s really hard to carry the weight of so many people … the emotion as a profession and then also have to come home and manage the emotions of your personal life,” she says. “As a social worker in general that’s difficult, and then the pandemic obviously makes that even harder.”
Roberts is a social worker at the Lake County Intermediate School in Leadville, balancing her time between work, handling and recovering from COVID, and other long-term stressors in her life.
“And so it’s been kind of like a long-term balancing act versus an acute stressful situation,” she explains. “It’s been having to manage ongoing stress for a really long time, so that takes some finesse and some planning in terms of really making sure self-care practices are happening.”
Being a social worker comes with challenges in a normal year, but the pandemic has reoriented her job’s focus. Between balancing online and in-person learning with the emotions of parents, staff, and students, her job as a social worker has much more community-oriented.
“I’ve been wanting it to be that way for a long time, but then COVID kind of forced it,” she says. “The workload has definitely increased. There are just so many more emotions involved coming from so many different angles.” She works to ensure families and students have access to food, internet, shelter, and medical care, does home visits when kids are out of school, and makes sure students are on track with the school’s hybrid model. While in quarantine, she’s had to improvise.
“I was still able to see most of my kids through Google Meets and I was able to talk to parents over the phone,” she says. “There’s just that face-to-face piece and being able to go out into the community that I haven’t been able to do, and that’s hard.”
She says the pandemic has only increased the need for social and emotional supports. She’s seen an increase in anxiety and internalized behaviors from overwhelmed kids.
“We already live in a high needs community,” she explains, referencing the Leadville community where significant numbers of parents normally work in the Eagle and Summit county resort industry. “We were already working with a pretty dysregulated population and I think they’re going to be even more dysregulated than before. So we’re gonna have some catching up to do in terms of helping kids feel safe and helping them get to a point where they’re regulated to actually learn.”
The school is already short-staffed. For a brief period, Roberts, the principal, and an academic dean were all out ill at once. The school’s staff is spread thin, and everybody is doing more than is in their job description.
“I’ve been telling everyone, our kids included, everything right now has to be one day at a time,” she says. “We have to be problem solvers and we have to give ourselves and each other grace because we can’t possibly meet all of the needs right now. We just can’t and it’s really, really difficult.”
In addition to her job as a social worker, Roberts is also a health and wellness coach. She tries her best to stay grateful, whether for her job or her access to medical care while she recovers from COVID, but it isn’t easy.
“I have a really strong self-care practice,” she says. “However, I also know that I can only do so much. I feel like my anxiety and my anger [at the system] is like higher than it’s ever been.”
Her recent quarantine on top of the normal COVID isolation has brought burnout to the surface, too.
“I care about our community, I love my kids, I love what I do,” she says quietly. “But I think COVID has just created more of a feeling of a divide than ever. I feel really isolated, which makes it harder to do my job.… It’s really hard to keep going.”
Even younger kids understand what’s going on. She’s had third graders talk about their oxygen levels with mask-wearing, and when someone is sick they get concerned and ask questions. They wear their masks responsibly and distance as much as they can. But that internalization still comes into play.
“I think often we underestimate the capacity of younger kiddos, and I do see that they understand what’s going on,” she says.“Because they understand, they are exhibiting more of those anxious behaviors than they have in the past because they’re scared and they don’t know how to process and handle everything.”
Even as the kids cope, they have a long road ahead. Roberts feels the biggest impact has been the inconsistency and shifting back and forth between virtual and in-person learning, as well as their home lives, as incomes are impacted.
“I really think as hard as we are trying, this is going to be a generation that is behind academically,” she says, “but I also think that they are going to be a generation that’s very flexible and resilient because they have been resilient and they have kept showing up.”
“They are suffering. It’s really quite sad to watch, and I’m hoping that we can do enough intervention and prevention while we have them, before they are getting to that high school age.”
In looking at the potential long-term effects, Roberts says she feels the universal lack of control makes it difficult to understand how kids and adults might be impacted. As access to traditional support systems and resources decreases, domestic violence and substance abuse are both on the rise. “Those aren’t problems that get solved overnight. So I think we’ve yet to really understand the long-term impact that this is going to have on our community.”
“I think mental health has kind of always been that silent pandemic,” she concludes. “Now more than ever that’s true because we’re all kind of in survival mode.”
Overall, she wants families to seek out resources for support in their community, whether for children or adults who may be struggling.
“Now is the time to normalize mental health care,” she says, pausing to check a call from her boss. “Now is the time to seek support and it’s also time to recognize that if you’re experiencing some sort of distress in terms of sadness, depression, or anxiety, your children probably are experiencing that, too. That’s not saying that you as a parent are causing that, but we can’t underestimate how our kids are internalizing or externalizing what’s happening right now.”
“It’s important to pay attention,” she continues. “Step one is to open up the dialogue. Ask each other how you’re feeling….because we can’t help each other if we don’t know.”
Whatever you’re going through, crisis counselors and professionally trained peer specialists are available to help. Call Colorado Crisis Service’s hotline at 1-844-493-TALK(8255). There is no wrong reason to reach out.
Featured image: Sarah Roberts is a social worker at the Lake County Intermediate School. She’s been juggling her own mental health along with her students’ this year. Image courtesy of Sarah Roberts.