Holidays, traditions and spirituality help with mental well-being and provide pathways for people to connect. Many are finding ways to maintain these aspects of their lives in meaningful and innovative ways while continuing to practice social distancing and adhere to stay-at-home orders.

Mental health professionals with the Tulane University School of Social Work recognize the significance of holidays and spiritual practice and are available to discuss their advice for celebrating during the COVID-19 crisis.

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are affecting the ability to connect to healing, spirituality, celebrations, and mourning, said Dr. Tonya Hansel, program director of doctorate of social work program at the School of Social Work. But that doesn’t mean the holidays can’t be celebrated in a meaningful way.

Hansel, who practices the Greek Orthodox faith, said that while this year’s celebration will be different, “the symbolism and ritual, which are very important to Orthodox Christians, can still be observed. Importantly the holiday is when we celebrate not only the resurrection but also the sacrifices made. Surely, we can endure the sacrifices required of social distancing.”

Dr. Nubian OmiSayade Sun, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor with the Tulane School of Social Work, agreed on the importance of connectedness in spirituality. She practices an African traditional religion which is a communal practice based upon interdependent relationships.

This year, Sun’s spiritual family is connecting via Facebook Live and WhatsApp. “We are having specific gatherings centering on healing, protection, and spiritual guidance during the crisis and offering mutual aid,” she said.

Given the importance of traditions and spirituality to grieving and connecting, people should focus on developing new ways – such as virtual gatherings -- to keep their practices as they continue to follow social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders.

Technology, of course, is supportive of this effort. Sun said she and her spiritual family are checking in more via phone to keep each other grounded and spiritually informed. They are also sharing, creating materials/purchasing spiritual supply from local individuals and botanicas important to their traditions through delivery or drive-by pick-up.

Members of the Jewish faith celebrating Passover will also have a different feel as large Seders are highly discouraged in favor of small intimate gatherings or virtual Seders that allow for wider participation among family and friends.

For those celebrating Easter, Hansel suggested a Zoom or FaceTime egg hunt, meal or social hour. "As spring is a symbol of new beginnings, you could also plant an herb garden or flowers, learn a new skill, take on the dreaded Spring cleaning, enjoy nature, open windows,” she said.

This year as part of her own new tradition, Hansel is attempting to make Tsoureki, a traditional Greek Easter bread. Her family will also go outside at midnight on April 19 with a candle and yell “Christo Anesti,” which is an Easter custom among Coptic and Greek Christians to greet another person with "Christ is Risen!"

“Even without a global pandemic, the holidays are often a time in which those with depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use disorders and grief may struggle more with their sense of wellbeing,” said Dr. Leia Saltzman, an assistant professor with the Tulane School of Social Work, who studies the long-term impact of trauma on mental health. 

Thousands of families are now approaching a holiday after the recent loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. This reality creates a host of new challenges that families will face above and beyond the disruptions in routine and tradition that might arise as a result of social distancing practices.

“This likely will include the acuity of grief and realizing that family traditions are forever changed because an integral member of the family is suddenly absent,” Saltzman said.

To interview Hansel, Sun or Saltzman, contact Barri Bronston at [email protected] or Carrie Moulder at [email protected].