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Sleep, Exercise, Connection: How Colorado Leaders Are Caring For Their Mental Health These Days

Clockwise from top left: Deirdre Pilch, Greeley-Evans School District superintendent; Dr. Yadira Caraveo, pediatrician and House District 31 state representative; Tay Anderson, Denver School Board director; Chancellor Joe Garcia, Colorado Community College System; Rev. Amanda Henderson, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado; Dr. Eric France, CDPHE chief medical officer.

A recent survey by the Colorado Health Foundation published last month paints a grim picture of how life is going these days. Coloradans have become loneliner, more anxious and more worried about affording food and rent. Many see the negative impacts of racism and are concerned about police violence. Low-wage workers and people of color report feeling these impacts the most.

In a new area of focus for KUNC, Leigh Paterson will now be reporting on mental health in Northern Colorado. With ongoing stressors like the coronavirus pandemic, a weakened economy, a divisive election and devastating wildfires, KUNC talked with several community leaders about how they are caring for their own mental health and what advice they have for others who are struggling.

Deirdre Pilch, Superintendent, Greeley-Evans School District

Dr. Pilch has overseen the phased reopening of District 6, which includes around 25,000 students and staff. Since August, those schools have experienced over 100 positive and probable coronavirus cases. This month, hundreds of studentshave had to quarantine because of potential exposure.

“The hardest moment in the last six months has been we did have a staff member pass away from COVID. We had the spouse of a staff member pass away from COVID... That, quite frankly, has been the most stressful part about reopening schools. The fear and worry that somebody may get so sick that they may not fully recover or die. That’s been the hardest part without a doubt.”

Pilch herself has focused on sleep, exercise and staying in touch with loved ones.

“My advice has been ‘Remember, this is not forever, this is for right now.’ I remind people to slow down, take a breath, do whatever it is that you need to do to relieve your stress… So whether that's take a walk, play with your dog, write in your journal, write a story, create a craft, reach out to the people you love, whatever that is, take a minute... and move out of this really stressful spot we're in right now.”

Dr. Yadira Caraveo, State Representative for House District 31, pediatrician

Dr. Caraveo is a pediatrician working in Adams County where coronavirus cases have recently spiked. Caraveo recalls a family with five children that recently came in to her clinic: one for asthma, one for flu, and the other three kids tested positive for COVID-19. She described the look of stress on the mom’s face as Dr. Caraveo asked if the parents would be able to take time off from work and if they would still have income.

“That really brought all of the issues that people have been going through and will continue to go through until this pandemic is under control and really brought them to light.”

With the stressors that are common in this line of work, Dr. Caraveo says she relies on her medical community for support.

“Yeah, it's difficult. I have two jobs to balance and so there's not always the time to take care of myself unless I make that time. And so it's funny, people ask me regularly, like, do you ever sleep? And I tell them, Oh yeah, that's actually one of my priorities because if I don't sleep then I'm no good to anyone.”

Her advice for others: if you are having a tough time, get help.

“So I would say if you're struggling right now know that you are not the only person who is struggling. We're seeing stress on society that we have not seen before. The one good thing that has come from this pandemic is that medical professionals have gotten much better at telehealth... there’s all sorts of ways you can get in touch with them by phone or computer and get the counseling help that you need.”

Tay Anderson, Denver School Board Director

Anderson has been active in dozens of recent racial justice protests in Northern Colorado, marching, speaking and advocating for policy changes. He pushed for the removal of police officers from Denver schools and advocated for legislation to increase police accountability.

“Throughout all of this I mean, the thing that's mentally taxing to continuously see Black people murdered in the first place like that... everybody thinks that we passed a law, we changed it, we did it. Uh, no. People are still dying literally right now... But I am taking it day-by-day. And just remembering the reason why I got into this fight and that's for children.”

Anderson is caring for himself these days by taking naps and going to his barber shop.

“Right now, I think one of the best things that I've felt as a stress reliever is when I voted. It took so much stress off me. So folks who haven't already gotten out to vote, please go vote.

“You know, I'm hopeful that we will be able to get through this very difficult year and turn the page to a brighter horizon in 2021.”

Dr. Eric France, Chief Medical Officer, Colorado Department of Public Health And Environment

Dr. France is one of the top officials in charge of Colorado’s coronavirus response. He started at the agency in February, just weeks before the first Coronavirus case in Colorado was detected.

“All of us at the state health department were working seven days a week, long days, doing our best to identify what best approaches would help manage and control this COVID pandemic in Colorado. That was a particularly stressful time for me in the last six months.”

In terms of self-care:

“What comes to mind for me is really my walk yesterday evening. It was probably around 6:30 or 7:00. It was dark, it was snowing. I was outside walking with my dog and the light was beautiful. (It) reminded me of the bigger picture that while we're having all these stressors, there's beauty all around us.”

“Just as COVID can be spread among family, I think anxiety can be spread among family. And so I can definitely think of times where I've watched rising case numbers. I've seen something that makes me worried about our near future with the pandemic, and maybe I express it too directly with my spouse and my adult children, and could be better about modulating my own emotions so that it doesn't spread to others in my family, the people I love… Each of us should look and decide what are the things we can do to help manage that stress and anxiety... all of that will make it more bearable.”

Rev. Amanda Henderson, Outgoing Executive Director, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado

Rev. Henderson has been advocating against Proposition 115, a ballot measure which would ban abortions after 22 weeks. Over the coming months, she will step down from the Interfaith Alliance to start a new initiative at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

Like other leaders, Rev. Henderson has been prioritizing simple things like jogging, drinking water and buying a heated blanket.

“I've grown really close to my neighbors and we all will sit outside in our lawn chairs, socially distanced with our glass of wine at night and laugh and tell stories and joke and bemoan the world and imagine futures that are different...Those connections have been so life-giving... And this is this thing to look forward to. This little moment of joy and this gift of connection with each other while knowing we are all in a time that we will look back on as so difficult and pivotal in our generation.

“I really feel like we need to be present to the pain and not put our head in the sand and ignore the pain that's happening. And some of us are experiencing it more directly and others are experiencing it less directly. One way to think about it is inhale and see it and exhale without holding it in your body... it is striking this balance because if we become so absorbed in the pain of the world, then we become paralyzed and then we're useless.”

Chancellor Joe Garcia, Colorado Community College System

Chancellor Garcia has been overseeing Colorado’s 13 community colleges at a time of sharply declining enrollment, especially among low-income students, first generation students, and students of color. Many of these colleges offer support in the form of wifi access, meals, childcare and access to counseling; the pandemic has disrupted those services.

“Well, whenever I can, and it's not often enough, I get out on my bike and go for a ride, take my motorcycle and go to the mountains. But the most helpful thing for me is that I have a spouse who is also a higher education administrator... at the end of the day, we can sit down and have dinner and a drink together and talk about the shared challenges we are facing. And that, frankly, has been very helpful, to have someone to share these challenges with.”

His advice for students:

“The main thing I say to them is: ‘Don't let this stop you from pursuing an education’... Don't fail to reach out. People still want to support you. And our colleges are open. Our employees are available, reach out to us online or over the telephone. We know we've got this double pandemic that really hit everybody hard, not just COVID, but issues around racial justice that really came to the forefront... We want to help you get through this. And if we stay in contact, we can get through this together.”

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.