There has been much talk in the media about the health impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and much talk about economic disruption on people’s ability to pay for food and necessities, etc. But I haven’t heard much (as of this writing) about the mental health impacts. While the stress of the disruption (and some fear) is borne by everyone, people who are already having some issues in the area of mental health will likely be more heavily impacted. Let’s look briefly at how and why, and then talk about what can be done to ameliorate these impacts.
First out of the Gate: Anxiety, Fear and Panic
The changes we have seen in the last few weeks are unprecedented in modern society. People have lost vacations, jobs, part or all of their income, and must now arrange to care for their children at home. It’s normal to be somewhat anxious, and it’s actually helpful to be concerned. But if the situation induces fear and fear becomes panic, then it is much worse. Of course it’s a frightening situation: Many people are dying from COVID-19 and many more will before it is over, and it’s very hard not to have any control (or even knowledge) of exactly what is on its way to your house. It’s important for all of us to be doing the best we can to avoid and reduce fear and panic (and to manage anxiety and stress). I’ll talk about some ways below.
The Second Wave: Economic Disruption
Many people live paycheck to paycheck. When that paycheck stops coming in abruptly, it’s a cause for great concern, and even more so if you have a family depending on it. This is a place where the impacts are very uneven—some people are working the same amount or more than when this started, but many are working less, and some not at all. It’s fortunate we have unemployment benefits, but this doesn’t take care of everything. The stress created by economic disruption can be quite severe.
Third at Bat: Isolation
This is one that we’ve barely noticed so far, but it will get bad. We often forget we are primates, and primates live in groups. Remove a primate from connection with its group, and bad things happen. Very bad things. People have a need (not a want, but a need) to be with people they know, people who love and accept them, people who know them. They need to have a place in the fabric of society, however limited or small that society is. Our families used to provide some of this, but now we are very spread out, and it’s not the best time to plan a cross-country visit.
The isolation will eventually hit us all, but those with depression are likely to be affected most, particularly if they live alone. A larger percentage of our population lives in single-person households than ever before. Holing up in your apartment and avoiding all contact may save you from the virus, but it might be very damaging to your mental health. Yet social distancing is the biggest weapon against COVID-19 that we currently have.
Resilience: How can we beat COVID-19?
So how to combat fear, stress from disruption and isolation? Well, there are ways. For most of human history, death has been at the door, always. Until the last hundred years, we never knew when something would jump out of the jungle and take us down: Whether a lion or a parasite or a fatal infection of some sort. How did we handle it? One way: By banding together.
After all, we aren’t the biggest, the strongest or the fastest. We’re the smartest. And not just individually. We use our smarts to cooperate with each other, to face common problems together, to figure them out, to implement complex and clever solutions. There’s a reason that there just aren’t many predators left that feed on us: we’ve clubbed them all to death. All but the viruses. They are the last big external threat.
So how do we win against it? The way we’ve always won against everything else: banding together. We have to connect with and help each other, solve the problems that arise and put plans into action. So what does that look like?
What can I do?
Let’s get specific. Here are some ideas:
- Talk to your friends. You can use phone or internet. Find a way to connect every day. Several times a day, at least. Being alone in this is deadly.
- Be informed, but not too informed. We have an incredible capacity for large-scale communication and problem-solving in the internet. It’s great to read some news, know what the CDC and governmental agencies and scientific experts are recommending. But too much time on it can be counterproductive. Don’t do so much that you become anxious or upset. Talking to a real person is preferable to reading story after story, hour after hour.
- Get outside. Feel the wind in your hair and the sun on your face. Being cooped up all day is depressing. Of course we have to keep our distance from others, but you can smile at someone and wave from six feet away.
- Find something you can do to help. Is there a food drive for people who have lost their jobs? Is there something you have that you could donate? Do you know people who live alone, who could use a call from someone who cares? It’s very curative to help others, and to feel like you are making a difference in a difficult time. And by connecting, you are. A big difference.
- Work on projects. What are the things you’ve been neglecting to do around the house? If you have extra time, it’s an opportunity. Try to make good use of it.
- Speaking of opportunities: What if your kids are home now? Well, this is a chance to get to know them better. Get out the board games. Run around the yard. If you’re a busy parent (what parent isn’t busy?) with some extra time, this could be a great chance for you and your child. You may be creating some of their fondest memories.
There are probably a lot of other things that can be done, but here’s the key: Don’t be in this alone. We belong with our people, and we should stay as close as we can. So find ways to connect. This situation is bad, but we’ve survived much, much worse. Just reach out, and see what you find.