How Seattle parents are coping with mental health struggles

It's not just the kids. From therapy to support groups, parents are seeking connection and help to recover from the traumas of the past few years.

Anthony and Xavier Austin

Anthony Austin, left, and his 12-year-old son Xavier at Pritchard Island Beach on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. During the early pandemic lockdown, Austin found support with other fathers through weekly Zoom meetings where they talked about their struggles and life. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

When COVID-19 started to spread in Washington in 2020, K. Brown, who asked that only her abbreviated name be used for privacy reasons, was thrust onto the frontlines of a deadly pandemic. A medical assistant at two hospitals in the Seattle area, she suddenly found herself administering CPR multiple times a week as the number of cases grew.

Brown was juggling to keep her two children, who have asthma, safe from the virus and on track in virtual school in their small Seattle apartment. That April, Brown’s mother died due to a heart-valve complication.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I'm crying every two minutes,’” she said. “I can't go out without crying. I wake up crying. I was like, ‘Am I going crazy?’”

She reached out to Emily West, her daughter’s therapist at mental health service provider Sound, and began seeing her once a week.

“Having her to guide me through a lot of those situations that I mentally wasn’t thinking properly was a blessing,” said Brown.

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Over the past two-and-a-half years, a seemingly never-ending array of stressors, from coronavirus and school shootings to rising prices and missing products in stores, have had a distinct impact on parents and guardians. Today, more Washington parents are reporting concerns related to anxiety, depression and general stress, state mental health providers said.

“Parents are trying to take care of their own health while also taking care of the health of their family members,” said Dr. Jeffrey Eisen, chief medical officer for behavioral health at MultiCare. “That, along with work and their own personal relationships, can make it even more difficult for parents to cope.”

In the midst of back-to-school season, a stressful period for many families at the best of times, Eisen urged caregivers to prioritize their own well-being, not only their family’s. Like when airline stewards instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before assisting others, he said, parents will be better equipped to help their children if they are also taking care of their own mental health.

Anthony Austin, left, and his 12-year-old son Xavier walk back home from Pritchard Island Beach on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Anthony Austin, a father of a 12-year-old son and executive director of Southeast Youth and Family Services, found his oxygen mask through an impromptu self-care group that he and several friends, also fathers, formed at the start of the pandemic.

The group started by talking on Zoom every week as a way to deal with their sudden isolation. By May 2020, it transformed into eight of them going on hikes. They talked about their careers, relationships, insurance, getting their kids ready for college and how they’re each preparing for death. Austin said one group member, a financial expert, even helped explain how to get started in the stock market. 

“It was just a way of checking in on each other’s mental health,” said Austin. “A lot of us really, really needed that opportunity to just see each other and be in space with each other, and talk about things we were kind of dealing with — work issues and life issues and marriage and family.”

Across the nation, there are clear signs many parents have struggled with their mental health in recent years. About 70% of all caregivers reported such mental health symptoms as anxiety or depression, according to findings released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June 2021. The agency also reported a strong connection between parents’ and their children’s mental health When parents experience such mental health symptoms as depression or anxiety, caring for their children may become more difficult, the agency reported.

In Washington, the 2021 Healthy Youth Survey found that 20% of 10th- and 12th-grade students had reported considering attempting suicide over the previous year, while 69% of 10th graders and 74% of 12th graders had reported feeling nervous or anxious in the previous two weeks.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available. Call or text the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Additionally, Crisis Connections of King County operates a confidential, free, 24-hour crisis line at 1-866-4-CRISIS (1-866-427-4747).

Dr. Michele Bedard-Gilligan, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said she has noticed a theme recently among her patients who are parents involving heightened feelings about the world being less safe. They appear to feel more anxiety and fear about such things as their children going to school or even running errands, particularly following news coverage of school shootings and hate crimes in public places like grocery stores, and local media's focus on crime in Seattle. One of her patients recently decided to homeschool her children because she no longer trusted the school system to keep them safe from gun violence and COVID. 

Bedard-Gilligan recommended that parents struggling with safety fears take time to reflect on how many of their concerns are based more on facts than on emotion. She suggested parents consider how much of their fear is based on true experience, and think through the likelihood that the thing they fear will happen.

Natalie Serianni, whose two children are in first and fourth grade, said she remembered having to take one of them to school the day after the Robb Elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May.

“I’m freaking out on the inside and now I have to go to work,” she said. “There’s just not a lot of room or time to process some of those things.”

Serianni said it’s been helpful to write about these types of situations, take breaks when she needs them and simply be more honest with her friends and family about how she’s doing, especially when she’s struggling.

At Sound, which has over a dozen facilities across Western Washington, child and family clinicians reported seeing a 25% increase in parents and caregivers reaching out for mental health services since the pandemic arrived in the state.

Sound therapist West said she and her parent clients often discuss issues like concerns about their parenting skills, loss of employment, struggles with child care, feelings of loneliness and difficulty processing grief and loss.

Finding a therapist can be challenging in Washington. According to a 2018 Washington State Health Assessment report, the most recent available, there was one provider for every 360 people in the state.

“We were a system that was pretty stretched to the limit before [the pandemic], and then we've really just become so overextended that it is hard,” said Bedard-Gilligan. “I will be the first to acknowledge that it's incredibly hard to access mental health care right now.”

Often the biggest hurdle for parents is inside their own heads, said Alice Nichols, board president of mental health organization NAMI Washington.

“I think parents are worried about being judged,” she said. “And there is so much mother-blaming and parent-blaming in our culture, that a lot of times parents are afraid to share what's really going on.”

Anthony Austin, left, and his 12-year-old son Xavier laugh with each other during a walk home on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. Today, more Washington parents are reporting concerns related to anxiety, depression and general stress, state mental health providers say. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

For Molly, a pseudonym used to protect her and her 8-year-old son’s privacy, the start of the pandemic involved a desperate struggle with virtual learning for her son, who was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It reached such a fever pitch that even saying the word “school” could upset him, she recalled.

She began seeing her therapist one-on-one more regularly. The therapist eased her fears about not doing enough for her son, and helped her navigate the decision to temporarily unschool him. Molly said she remembered her therapist explaining, “You either have to change your kid to fix the box, or you change the box to fit your kid.”

The decision, along with getting him on the right medication, led to him thriving by the second year of the pandemic, Molly said. She was also able to find the right medication to treat her own anxiety, depression and ADHD.

“Just four or five months ago, I feel like I reached normalcy for myself,” she said. “I reached a baseline that I was really happy with. It’s really allowed me to be more present for my child and be able to more objectively help him rather than react to the things he does based on my own emotional state.”

Neil Olson, senior director of clinical operations at Crisis Connections, a crisis telephone service provider in Washington, said he has noticed that parents often initiate calls because they are looking for support for their children.

“And then as the conversation progresses, we're finding that the parent also needs some support,” he said.

Reflecting on going to counseling through the pandemic, parent and medical assistant K. Brown described the support as “having a million dollars when you needed it.”

“She helped me to see who I was as a person, spiritually, as a mom, as a human being,” said Brown. “Because I wasn’t there. I didn’t know which way I was supposed to go. I was confused. As I look back at that time, I don’t think I would have made it this strong without her help.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Hallie Golden

Hallie Golden

Hallie Golden is a freelance journalist in Seattle. She writes regularly for The Guardian and The New York Times about the environment, Indigenous rights and all things Pacific Northwest.