COVID-19 took loved ones from Dawn Benoy and turned her routines upside down

Written by Gretchen Parisi

For Dawn Benoy, managing her depression and anxiety is easier when she is able to rely on routines. Those routines came to a crashing halt with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also caused her to lose loved ones. The combination of these events resulted in a mental health crisis that led her into treatment at the Transitions outpatient program at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Dawn is no stranger to mental health issues; she suffered from stress-related stomachaches as a child and her fears held her back from fully engaging with others. While in college, she was diagnosed with depression.

"Looking back, I know that I'd suffered from it a lot longer than anyone else realized," she says. "Hindsight is 20/20 and the telltale signs that many of us now recognized were there: withdrawal from peers, feelings of worthlessness and loss of joy."

COVID-19 pandemic affects mental health

Dawn explains that as she gets older, she is finding that her depression and anxiety is more intense, with the conditions mostly manifesting as fear of unknown places and excessive worry. Although she had been able to manage these conditions, the COVID-19 pandemic placed new obstacles in her way.

"We lost my stepdad and my husband's grandfather to COVID-19, even though we had done everything we could to protect them by not visiting them at the care facilities where they lived," she says. After they died, Dawn's family could not get together "to grieve and share hugs," which she notes "took a toll on my psyche."

Additionally, the routines of work and home life changed dramatically in short order soon after the pandemic began. Dawn was furloughed from her job in Ophthalmology at MCHS in Red Wing, Minnesota, and tried to settle into a new routine with her son, who was navigating online school, and with her husband, who was working from home.

She found a new routine, but then she was called back in to work, another sudden change. "Routine helps me, but the rug kept getting pulled out from under me," Dawn says. "And all of the other places where I felt comfortable in my community and where I volunteered – the library, my son's school and our church – were affected by COVID-19 and no longer were outlets that helped me focus on things outside of myself."

She found some peace in taking nature walks, but her depression and anxiety started feeling out of control.

Strong enough to get help

In late May, Dawn realized she was in a mental health crisis and needed to seek professional help. "As with many of us with mental illness, the pandemic exacerbated my symptoms until I could no longer help myself, because I didn't know how," she recalls. "I was broken, but I was strong enough to know I needed help."

After getting a referral to Transitions, Dawn spent three weeks in the outpatient program, where she learned "that it is okay to take care of myself and not always put others first." She also was introduced to many coping skills and mindfulness techniques that keep her in the moment. She now exercises every day and makes self-care a priority.

"When you take care of people all day and also have a family, it can be a struggle to find balance, especially in trying times," she says. "You have to set boundaries with your time – you can't serve from an empty vessel."

She also found that although her depression and anxiety are a part of who she is, they don't define her. She is more aware of what she needs to achieve a work-life balance, and realizes that "it's okay to be me," she says.

"This year I have grown in my compassion for others, I leave work at work and dedicate time to enjoy my family while also taking the time I need for myself," she shares. "I also learned that if the routines you rely on fall away, you can build new ones."

How others can help

Dawn knows that she will continue to have ups and downs in her mental health journey, but the insights she has gained over the past several months keep her going. "If you have people in your life who are struggling, you can help by being supportive, by understanding that they cannot control the timing of their crises, and that mental health conditions are health care conditions, just like cancer or diabetes," she advises.

Being an ally to those who are dealing with mental health issues can both lift their burdens and make them feel like they are not alone, Dawn says. "And if you are the one suffering, advocate for yourself, do some research and look into programs. Going to Transitions saved my life."

On Oct. 10 – Mental Health Awareness Day – Dawn shared 16 things she has learned from her experience on her social media. A few of those lessons included "It's okay to not be okay" and "Most of the time, a kind word or act of compassion can turn someone's day around."

Noting her love of books and the comfort and escape they have provided her over the years, Dawn passes along a quote from Harry Potter's Albus Dumbledore to those who may be dealing with mental illness: "Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."