Kansas health secretary, Topeka psychologist discuss managing mental health concerns amid unyielding pandemic

Dr. Susan Voorhees, left, a Topeka child psychologist, speaks alongside Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, on Wednesday July 29, 2020 at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

Kansas’ top health official on Wednesday took a bit of a detour from his normal weekly media briefings to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Kansans’ mental health.

Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, was joined by Dr. Susan Voorhees, a Topeka-based psychologist who specializes in treating children affected by trauma. Voorhees and Norman spent much of Wednesday’s news conference discussing how mental health concerns for both children and adults can be addressed during a historically unprecedented time.

Voorhees said one of the best avenues parents can take in helping their children cope with pandemic-related anxiety is to talk with them honestly about what’s going on.

“At this point, most of the kids understand there’s an illness there and that they got disrupted from school in the spring and spent the summer at home. Everybody is very anxious,” she said.

And with the looming reopening of schools, that anxiety is only ramping up — not only in children, but in their parents as well. Part of talking with children about what’s going on is giving them a name for what they’re feeling, Voorhees said, because being anxious is a perfectly legitimate feeling. Plus, it then gives children the words they need to talk about feeling anxious in the future.

“The best thing for parents to do is talk to their kids. We know that anxiety is like the monster under the bed. It hides in the dark; it hides in the areas where we don’t talk about things and just let our minds go and wander and imagine,” she said. “(It’s to) help kids get a little more of a sense that they are strong agents in their lives and they aren’t just dependent on other people. Kids love that power.”

For adults, Norman and Voorhees said, the best strategies to manage their own anxiety really aren’t much different — it comes down to asking yourself “can I be anxious about this now? Or is this something I’m anxious about that’s three weeks away?”

Kansas on Wednesday confirmed another 698 cases of COVID-19 since Monday, bringing the state’s cumulative total to 26,870. KDHE also confirmed another 14 deaths attributed to the virus, which has now claimed the lives of 349 Kansans.

“These are really quite significant increases,” Norman said.

In the coming weeks, Norman said KDHE hopes to employ as many as 100 full-time contact tracers with the hope of slowing the spread of the virus and containing the disease.


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