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Mental health professional, Earle Irwin, a retired clinical nurse specialist, has been available to all residents of Ocracoke for the past three months.

Many on the island are benefiting from her counseling expertise to help cope with the trauma of Hurricane Dorian since Sept. 6 and now the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She has three months remaining in her six-month term here.

Earle Irwin. Photo: C. Leinbach

The Ocracoke Interfaith Relief & Recovery Team, with funding provided by the Outer Banks Community Foundation, brought Earle to the island to provide islanders mental health support and education at no charge as they cope with Dorian aftermath and any other issues they may be dealing with.

We’ve invited Earle to answer your questions in a column that we will publish from time to time. Please submit your questions (all names will be confidential) at and watch for her response in a future column. Or, for a more personalized response, contact her directly at 703-863-1243 or

Dear Mental Health Professional: I’d say we had a pretty normal family before this COVID-19 thing, but now we’re all four stuck at home all day and all we do is get on each other’s nerves. We can’t have a conversation without someone screaming or throwing a temper tantrum, and sometimes it’s all four of us at the same time! What is wrong with us and how do we keep from killing each other?

Response: To answer the first part of your question, I don’t need to ask you to inventory the stressors in your life to acknowledge that the changes brought about with COVID-19 restrictions have impacted your family in unpleasant ways. Change of any kind brings stress, and all of us know that residents on Ocracoke have endured a continuous series of drastic changes over the past eight months.

We may not like the COVID-19 restrictions, yet we have little choice but to follow them, unless we want to put ourselves at risk of contracting or spreading serious illness.

When people find themselves in situations they did not choose, they inevitably will experience some negative emotions: sadness, resentment, anger, fear, anxiety, loss of control or hopelessness. To minimize the emotion, a person can focus on what in their life they can control.

For example: we still have control over if and when we get out of bed in the morning, when we eat meals, and, of the activities that are not restricted by COVID-19, which ones we engage in. Choosing a daily schedule for oneself is another means of taking some control over one’s life.  With so many uncertainties, the predictability of a schedule can be reassuring, especially for family members.

So, if your semblance of routine was lost when your family was forced to stay home, now is a great time to restart one. The adults in the family can begin the conversation, then expand to include input from the younger members. That everyone gets to contribute something will enhance buy-in.

Each family member on the same schedule is not necessary, but specific times during the day when schedules overlap is important to nurture family cohesiveness: mealtimes, for example. Also important to include: time for chores, with everyone contributing in some way, and family fun time.

Similar to when they were attending school, school-age children need established hours each day to spend on schoolwork. And the scheduling of healthy activities allows limits to be placed on any activities which have been consuming large chunks of time, such as video games, social media or TV news as continuous background noise.

Start simple. Rather than schedule every hour from wake-up to bedtime, start with three or four scheduled activities—perhaps meal times, study time, and a fun activity (game, puzzle, outdoor activity, trip to beach, movie and popcorn, etc). The fun activity can be the family reward for sticking with the other scheduled activities.

Let the kids make a poster or elect a family member to post the schedule where everyone can see it. Expand the schedule according to your family’s needs and capabilities.

Better to start small and succeed with a couple of activities than to come up with a complex schedule and fail. And adjust expectations.

If it doesn’t work, make adjustments and try again. Congratulate each other when any aspect works! Celebrate the success!



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