Why is it important to talk about COVID-19’s mental health implications?
Struggling with my own mental health during the outbreak of this pandemic, I questioned the lack of conversation about the mental health implications coronavirus (COVID-19) could have on the population. Holding more conversations about how this pandemic could potentially impact mental health in the workplace, in virtual classrooms, and in households is crucial. It is also important for parents, professors and employers to show extra flexibility and understanding during this time and to provide their children, students and employees with crisis resources. Behind the scenes, individuals may be struggling with issues they do not always want to come out and share, but showing those same individuals that you are there for them as a source of support can make a significant difference in how they cope. Having conversations on mental health is always important, but even more so now during this pandemic.
At the onset of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, I quickly came to the realization that most events and activities I planned for this year would either have to be canceled, postponed or moved to an online format. I was devastated. A few days later, I found out my local gym would be closed. For someone like myself who uses exercise as a coping mechanism, the closing of gyms gave me much fear and anxiety, and my feelings of loss of control were exemplified. At first, I avoided accepting what was happening by sleeping more often than usual, avoiding my usual responsibilities and trying to turn to humor to alleviate the pain I was feeling. But that feeling of dread still remained. Because of the prolonged nature of this quarantine, I, like many others, had to reassemble a survival kit filled with new coping skills because I no longer had access to coping mechanisms I depended on the most.
Some days are fine as I adapt to this “new normal,” but other days, I feel the sadness all over again. I gave a name to what I was feeling: grief. Grief over feeling trapped with my thoughts, and grief over losing moments in my life that meant the world to me.
Many others are currently mourning the loss of different events and their life before COVID-19. For someone whose sense of purpose is centered around school, or their job, for example, not having access to these activities could result in someone losing that sense of purpose, according to Dr. Dana Garfin. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention writes that grief can linger around certain moments and memories. It is natural to be mourning your losses during this current time. Your losses may include a job, school, seeing loved ones or other meaningful things. As with any loss, it is OK, natural and healthy to be grieving. Grief could take a backseat in your mind when you may feel like you are getting used to your new life during this pandemic, but it can also come in waves and suddenly the feelings of loss, sadness, anger and heartbreak can overwhelm you all at once. It is then valid if you are feeling sadness or devastation around things like certain places you used to love visiting on campus, or a friend or colleague you did not get to say goodbye to. Whether you are feeling isolated, anxious, depressed, angry, not much different than you usually did before the pandemic or a mix of emotions throughout the day, you are allowed to feel however you want to feel. You are still important and your mental health still matters.
Living in the age of COVID-19 simply is frightening. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and there is no definite deadline of when our lives will return back to “normal.” Not to mention that it is nerve-wracking watching the hundreds of thousands of people suffering from COVID-19 around the world and seeing the number of deaths from COVID-19 related complications continue to rise. In addition to uncertainty and fear, sudden disruption of a routine according to mental health experts has the potential to increase feelings of grief, anxiety, frustration and depression.
In a CNBC article, Darcy Gruttadaro, the director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health states that “There is a real concern that we will see widespread anxiety, PTSD, depression, high suicide rates and a high incidence of substance abuse.”
This pandemic can make it more difficult for those already struggling with their mental health as well as for those who have not struggled with mental health previously. For example, those who had mental health concerns prior to the pandemic might be facing heightened symptoms due to isolation. An individual in recovery from an eating disorder or substance use disorder could be more prone to relapse during this time. Specific at-risk populations such as individuals in domestic violence situations may be even more susceptible to abuse given the fact that they are now forced to spend prolonged amounts of time with abusers in the same residence. This, in turn, could negatively impact their sense of safety and security, increasing their struggles with mental health.
Those who have not experienced severe mental health issues previously might currently be experiencing an elevated sense of anxiety, loneliness, depression or grief. This can include those working on the front-lines who are afraid of catching or carrying COVID-19 and possibly bringing the illness home to their loved ones. This can also include college students who may now be facing feelings of increased anxiety, due to the inevitable stress that comes with having to complete the rest of the semester remotely, the feelings of loneliness and sadness that could result from not being able to physically interact with friends, professors and others in the social circle they used to see on a daily basis, financial concerns, and changes to their living situation. While higher levels of painful emotions can be normal during a pandemic, it is also important to seek help from a professional when elevated levels of anxiety or depression severely impact your daily functioning.
BuzzFeed News reports that mental health professionals are saying that the pandemic could negatively impact individuals who used social contact as a main coping skill in recovery and treatment. With social distancing –or better put– physical distancing for about a month now, it is justifiable that people may feel lonely being physically unable to see friends and family. Humans are social creatures and crave connection and physical touch. What we are experiencing is a “collective trauma.”
What is “collective trauma?”
According to Dr. Dana Garfin, “collective trauma” in reference to this pandemic can be the overall experience of social distancing and being in quarantine. While using the term “collective trauma,” however, it is important to remember every person’s experience is unique, based on current living situations, socioeconomic status, physical and mental health, and other factors. For some, life changes may be more magnified than others who might not really feel much of a difference in their daily lives as a result of this pandemic. But everyone, no matter how much or how little certain aspects of their life have been affected, deserves to be heard and treated with kindness.
I stress the importance of talking about the implications this pandemic can have on mental health (and available resources) for those struggling in conversations about COVID-19 because I know from my own experience, processing my struggles with others is helping me get through this difficult time. Knowing that there are still mental health resources available helped me regain a sense of safety and support in my life. According to many experts, this pandemic can and will have a long-lasting trauma on the population. Resilience may play a factor because experts also say that most people are resilient and will be able to bounce back from this trauma. It is vital to start focusing on the population’s mental health now so that when the time comes and this pandemic is over, too many people do not feel as though they cannot bounce back from this pandemic. And for those individuals who do need extra support to rebuild their lives after this pandemic, we must make it clear that there is support and help available.
How can we stay hopeful amidst COVID-19?
1) An article written by the American Psychological Association suggests that it is important to maintain social connections while being physically distant. For many with mental illness it is natural to isolate, but now more than ever it is necessary to try to hold on to those social connections as much as possible, whether it is a phone call, a text or connecting through social media. Even going to class or work through Zoom can help if that is something that helps you stay connected to others.
2) Focus on what you can control during this difficult time. A great deal can seem to be out of your control right now. What is currently in your control? Examples of things you are able to control can even include getting enough sleep, practicing safe social distancing, making yourself your favorite meal, getting some exercise and talking to your friends and family. Remember that it is OK if you do not get to something such as an assignment when you were planning to. Please be gentle and compassionate with yourself. You are doing the best you can right now.
3) Write down a list of goals or revise your goals for this year. What can you still accomplish or achieve in your life regardless of the pandemic? What can you look forward to?
4) If you do have extra time, focus on a new activity or hobby that you have been wanting to try such as baking, painting, running, etc.
5) Check-in with your friends and loved ones often, especially those you know struggle with a mental health disorder. People who are isolating may seem to want to be left alone, but a kind message asking how they are doing could mean the world to them. It could also help you to connect with someone.
6) Validate each other. If a friend, loved one, student or colleague opens up to you about their struggles during this time, validate what they are feeling or going through. What may seem little to you, may mean the world to that person. Part of being here for each other includes listening to others non-judgmentally as they open up to you.
7) Try to focus on altruism and kindness for your fellow human beings. What can you do to help others? Whether it is checking-in with a loved one, sharing an inspiring quote with others, donating to your local food bank or making and donating face masks, you can make a difference in a person’s life. This, in turn, may give you more hope and increase a sense of social connectedness.
8) Focusing on gratitude for yourself, your health, others in your life and the little things in life such as appreciating nature, has been found to improve physical and psychological health according to “Psychology Today.” Research also suggests gratitude can decrease feelings of depression and create more feelings of happiness and joy.
9) Limit your exposure to the news or other sources of information about COVID-19 and make sure that when you do watch or read the news, you have access to reputable and reliable sources. It is incredibly important to stay informed to make sure that you are staying safe, healthy and are following all the new policies in place, but it is also important to set some limitations on how much media you consume. For some people, however, watching the news might give them a sense of control over what is going on. It is important to figure out what makes you feel the most at ease and follow that for yourself.
While we are in fact not able to see each other physically, the kindness and love for fellow humans have been demonstrated in various ways, which give me some hope among the sadness and chaos. Individuals are reconnecting with old friends, people are helping each other by sewing and donating face masks and restaurants are giving out free food to those who need it, to name a few positive actions that are occurring. Though it may seem like our physical connectedness as humans are temporarily not present, we are now more socially connected than ever and with the help of one another, we can overcome the long-lasting impact this pandemic can have on us. I am wishing everyone much peace, safety and health during this difficult time. Please reach out to a mental health professional or a mental health hotline number if you need to. We will all get through this together.
B.A. in Psychology an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Rider.