Shawnee Mission Faces: Carron Montgomery, local counselor and mental health advocate

Carron Montgomery sees firsthand how the pandemic has taken a toll on mental health of children, teens and families. 

A licensed professional counselor practicing at Aster Counseling at State Line and 83rd, Montgomery wants to spread the word about the tools and education people need to understand the impact of the pandemic on our mental health. 

A 2000 grad of SM East, Montgomery earned her bachelor’s in psychology at Denison University and her master’s in counseling psychology at Avila University. She has worked at local organizations MOCSA and Operation Breakthrough.

Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with family, bike riding, tennis and reading a good book, particularly subjects in her field. She lives in Leawood with her husband, Matt Montgomery, their three children and a brand-new Aussie-doodle puppy.

During the pandemic, I was able to see the impact it was having on everyone, and I felt it coming, the more anxiety-producing parts, months before today. And I kept telling my friends, you need to be prepared, there’s going to be an emotional health pandemic.

I thought this pandemic is so much bigger than the physical. Yes, the physical is important, but mental health and physical health are directly correlated, and I saw people struggling so much that I thought I have to start talking about it.

What happened initially was some people went really fear-based, but a lot of people just that first couple of weeks, went back to normal lives, the lives we were meant to live in terms of family time, family dinners, spending time with their kids, just enjoying the little things. Because at the moment, we didn’t have this looming fear of it lasting as long as it was going to last. And people weren’t losing jobs at that point.

For most people, it was a time of reprieve, and my teens really taught me that they were able to get away from FOMO (fear of missing out) for the first time in their lives. For the first time ever, they could see social media and not be worried about who someone was with, and they didn’t have the stress of school because we had put school on hold.

And they didn’t have the stress of being overscheduled and sports. So many of my clients — since I specialize in anxiety and depression and OCD — I was worried how they would react. And they reacted beautifully. They were in this cocoon of protection.

And then I saw a trend of a whole new group that had never had any mental health conditions whatsoever, they had never experienced anxiety, depression, OCD, and they were the type of kids that went along with the way our society has taught us to be as Americans: Overscheduled, overly busy, constantly on the go. So they were never in their head. And they suddenly were stripped of all of that overnight. And all they had was being in their head.

We don’t really teach kids how to be in their head or how to deal with their emotions. We teach babies how to soothe when they come out, but we forget that kids still need help learning feelings identification, and they need to learn how to self-soothe and relax. So I think that’s something that we forget to teach and that that need continues later on.

So these kids didn’t have any of these skills. The kids that had been in therapy actually had more skills and were better equipped at the beginning to be in their head because they knew that feelings were messengers, and they weren’t bad, and they were taught how to sit with them and given strategies on what to do with them.

Anxiety is not bad. Anxiety is a feeling, and it’s a feeling that everyone feels. And it’s our job to help kids understand that, one, to normalize it, to validate it, explain it and allow space for it, and explain of course you feel anxious honey, you haven’t been to school in nine months and your brain is a muscle, and you haven’t used that part of your brain, and it’s really scary going back, and it doesn’t look the same, and everybody’s wearing masks.

Everybody’s anxious. The teachers want their kids in person, the kids want to be in person, but when they got to school, it wasn’t the school that they were used to, so it created, actually, a lot more anxiety and distress, not for all, but for most.

Because they didn’t have the protection of their peer groups or the protection of knowing that this is the way it’s going to be — that looming is it going to change in a couple of weeks, what’s it going to look like — and they lost a lot of time to be able to go up to the teachers and get help because we have forced our teachers to have to focus so much on safety that a lot of those benefits of why it was so great to be in person were taken away.

And that’s not the school’s fault because their number one concern has to be safety, but it created a lot of anxiety and depression, and kids felt more isolated than they’ve ever felt before. Because they thought by going back, they would feel social connection, and they felt lonelier than ever.

We need to teach people and kids, actually, how to work with it so that normalizing it and validating it and explaining why it’s happening, and what’s going on in your body is actually what safe and normal, healthy bodies do. And no feeling lasts forever, so it will go away.

If you’ve had a horrible thing happen, you need someone that’s calm to be a presence.  Mirror neurons show that we pick up on the energy of other people. So the problem right now is we have anxious people with an anxious world. This is a societal problem.

We have to figure out ways to reach everyone and normalize these things because anxiety is contagious and we’ve got to get it under control. The whole world is anxious right now because we don’t have specific answers. We just need to recognize that we all have it and to take care of ourselves and that as parents, to do self-care so we can provide coregulation for our kids when they need it.