by Eric Ravenscraft: If you’re thinking, “Oh, I just need to suck it up,” stop. What you’re feeling is real. Here’s how to cope…
This is the first sentence I’ve written this week. I wrote it on a Thursday. Like many people right now, I’m finding work harder to get done, and even basic daily tasks feel heavier than usual. If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, and there’s data to prove it.
While there’s been ample discussion of the economic fallout from a global pandemic, the toll it takes on our collective mental health is harder to quantify. It’s almost impossible to stay at home for months on end, cancel years worth of events, and disrupt even basic routines like how we shop for groceries without a significant impact on our mental health. And yet, it can feel like the impact of these changes is “just stress,” and treat it as something to power through.
According to data from Mental Health America (MHA), however, more people are facing deteriorating mental health. From January through September of 2020, the number of people who have taken MHA’s anxiety screenings has increased by 93 percent over the entire previous year. The organization’s depression screening has seen a 62 percent increase over 2019’s totals. Before the year was even over, more people were trying to find out if they were suffering from anxiety or depression than ever before.
MHA isn’t the only organization with data pointing to the mental health impact of the pandemic. A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation in July 2020 found that 53 percent of adults said the pandemic had a negative toll on their mental health. Data collected from the CDC found that 41 percent of adults experienced symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder in December 2020, compared to 11 percent in January-July of 2019.
All of which is to say, it’s not just you. Mental health troubles are a natural reaction to an ongoing traumatic event like a pandemic.
The pandemic has disrupted most aspects of our lives, but the added isolation of quarantines, social distancing, and canceled events is one of the biggest tolls on our collective mental health. It’s not just that we miss our friends and family. The social bonds we have form support systems and safety networks. With those gone or reduced, it can lead to an increase in anxiety or depression symptoms.
MHA’s vice president for mental health and systems advocacy, Debbie Plotnick, explained that one of the ways this can manifest—particularly in young people—is self-harm. “In November, 53 percent of those 11 to 17 years old reported—so more than half of them—having frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm.”
One of the top reasons, not just for self-harm thoughts among young people, but for the mental health problems in people of all ages, is the distance we’ve had to put up between each other. “We’ve been asking [the people who take MHA surveys] what troubles them—and remember, they’re not all young—and they’re telling us it’s loneliness and isolation.”
It might seem like isolation isn’t quite as bad as some of the other stressors that a pandemic can bring—a loss of income, political unrest, and disrupted schedules—but it’s a crucial one. We need other people, and while digital connections like Zoom meetings or Discord parties are great filler, it’s hard to be away from the people we care about for so long.
And then there’s the practical impact. As of September 2020, a quarter of US adults said they’d had trouble paying their bills since the start of the pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center survey. However, that number rises to 46 percent among lower-income households. “For folks who have jobs, they’re very grateful,” explained Plotnick. “For folks who are losing their jobs, this is excruciating.”
When practical supports—like financial stability, routines like going to work or school, or even spending time with friends and loved ones—are diminished, it makes it harder to handle the stress. This leads to increased anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to trauma and stress, but the feeling of being on guard and bracing for disaster can continue even long after the initial threat is gone. And when the traumatic event is ongoing—like a pandemic—it can lead to harmful coping habits that treat imminent disaster as though it’s always right around the corner.
Meanwhile, depression can be characterized by a variety of symptoms, including constant fatigue, loss of appetite, hopeless feelings, and difficulty focusing. These symptoms are exacerbated when there’s a major disruption to our routines—and especially when it’s impossible to create comparable new ones. Put simply, if you struggle with motivation, mood, or daily habits, being told to stay home for weeks or months on end isn’t going to help remind you to get fresh air, eat well, or socialize.
None of which is to say that following pandemic safety measures are bad. But it’s natural for following them to have a negative impact on our mental health. Which makes it all the more important to seek out help or to institute new, constructive habits wherever possible.
There are no easy answers to solving mental health crises during a pandemic. It would be overly simplistic to say, “See a doctor” or “Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline”—though if either of these things will help you, then by all means do so. However, even seeing a doctor can be stressful during a pandemic. So, if you’re struggling to take a big step, you can try taking little ones to start with.
“Yes, people can go to their doctor. Most people don’t straight away,” Plotnick explained. This is where MHA’s screening tools come in. “The screens on the MHA website are the same validated screens that you would take in a physician’s office,” Plotnick said. For many people, it’s easier to take a test online than it is to brave a doctor’s visit to take what, in some cases, might be the same test.
Based on the results, MHA will direct users to additional resources. However, as MHA’s site suggests, even sitting with the knowledge that what you’re feeling is normal and identifiable can be a good first step. When you’re ready, you can try to find a therapist, talk to some friends, or even discuss the possibility of medication or other treatments with a doctor. If you can’t afford a doctor, you can try talking to friends (or even a therapy chatbot). But most of all, recognize that, like any physical illness, what you’re feeling is real, it’s normal, and you can make a plan to treat its symptoms.