6 Insights Into Mental Health From The Last Year (That You Can Use Well Beyond The Pandemic)

Energized by the hope of herd immunity and a return to normalcy, America appears to be cautiously emerging from the past year’s collective depression. And considering 2020’s mental health statistics, the cloud is lifting not a moment too soon. Last year, one in four people aged 18 to 24 seriously contemplated suicide (CDC); a Help.org survey showed one in three adults “knowing someone with an addiction;” more than one in three adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety and depression disorder – compared to one in ten when surveyed the previous year; and eight in ten adults described the pandemic as a “significant source of stress in [their lives]” (APA). And while heartbreaking, as a therapist and executive coach I believe the negative effects of lockdown restrictions offer a silver lining: advice for how we can improve our mental health and increase our resilience well beyond the remainder of the pandemic.

Historically, the conversation around mental health overwhelmingly skews toward citing genetics or neurochemical imbalance (which are valid contributing factors); however, the last year has provided us clear and valuable insights that we would be remiss not to integrate. While we can’t change our genetic vulnerabilities or past traumas, we can influence the lifestyle factors that impact our well-being. 

1. Grief significantly affects our mental health, and it occurs more often than we realize

When we think of grief, we often assume it means someone has died. And considering nearly three million lives were lost to Covid-19 worldwide, many Americans are grieving in response to bereavement. However, it’s important to understand that we experience grief in response to significant losses far more often than we realize. Here are some examples of grief that I’ve seen in my clients over the last year:

  • The loss of a romantic, familial, or social relationship
  • The loss of a job or business 
  • Displacement or relocation (15.9m people filed a change-of-address request with the USPS in 2020). 
  • The cancellation and postponement of holidays, major life events, and celebrations
  • The loss of coping mechanisms conducive to well-being: for example, travelling, socializing, routine, and self-care

There are numerous other places grief shows up in the human experience: aging, infertility, disability, motherhood, retirement, and more. Essentially any significant transition involves a component of grief, even those that are traditionally viewed as positive or preferred. Grief is an inevitable part of life – one that shows up again and again, as long as we’re here. And thus, it’s important to understand that grief mimics depression. Both affect our sleep and appetite, mood, energy levels, and focus. Bot usually include intense sadness and rumination. However, the difference is that grief generally does lessen with time; while without mental health support, depression may not. 

Action step: Do an inventory of the losses you’ve experienced over the past year – however small – to understand how that’s impacted your mental health. Remember that grief is not linear, and it’s normal to experience an array of difficult thoughts and feelings in response to loss and transition. Moving forward, look for where compromised mental health might be a product of grief, and adjust your self-expectations and seek support accordingly. 

2. Mental health challenges are often the result of social isolation

Even before the pandemic, we had ample research to support the notion that isolation creates and exacerbates mental illness. Some experts suggest shame is the key variable, here: in isolation, we are more vulnerable to thoughts and feelings of unworthiness that breed anxiety and depression. Additionally, in a vicious cycle, when feeling “unworthy” we are less likely to want to connect… so we isolate further. The forced isolation of the pandemic has likely played a significant factor in mental health decline, and highlights how important it is to create and prioritize social connection. 

Action step: Especially if you live alone, be proactive about creating opportunities for connection – even when shame tells you to cancel plans or tempts you to refrain from reaching out. Remember, imperfection is the human condition and being flawed does not make you unlovable or broken. It’s also important to note that we can be physically connected but emotionally isolated: intimate connection generally occurs when there is some level of vulnerability in which we feel accepted as our authentic selves. 

Finally, a recent study showed that pet owners experienced less deterioration in their mental health during the pandemic. Perhaps their unconditional love mitigates some of that aforementioned shame…

3. Privilege and mental health are inextricably linked

Undeniably, the pandemic has disproportionately affected oppressed populations. The majority of economic burden and increased stress and responsibility has affected communities of color and those with disabilities or marginalized gender identities. Moreover, these populations experience less access to (and time for) mental health support, coping, and self-care. 

While it’s a convenient narrative that “happiness is a choice,” the reality is that systemically oppressed populations are far more vulnerable to mental health challenges. Transgenerational trauma, discrimination, diminished access to coping and quality education and lifestyle, single-parent homes, and financial stress are just a handful of mental health risk factors that contributed to a significant increase in anxiety, addiction, depression, and abuse over the last year – and, no surprise, marginalized populations have been hit the hardest. 

Action step: If you identify as oppressed, consider how your experience of oppression might be impacting your well-being instead of blaming yourself for mental health challenges. Meditation or a bullet journal might not offer you the same relief it offers someone who gets eight hours of sleep a night, has a live-in nanny, and goes to therapy once a week. And regardless of your level of privilege, respect others’ perspective on medication: in some cases, mental health can be managed through lifestyle, support, and stress-reduction; however, many people don’t have the time, financial resources, and access for holistic programs – and in those cases medication is usually very appropriate choice. 

4. …and at the same time, pain can exist alongside privilege 

During the pandemic, I lost my literary agent, my apartment, my relationship, my community, my coping mechanisms, my stability, and physical access to my support system in Canada. I lived out of a suitcase for 11 months and slept in close to 30 beds while my ex and I attempted to stay safe and sane somewhere other than our home in New York City. While struggling with my own mental health, I messily did my best to support nearly 20 clients a week through the global pandemic and social justice movement (though we certainly weren’t trained for that in grad school!). A few months in, I was recognizing signs of depression in myself. And yet, I kept telling myself that because I still had income, health, white privilege, and a partner, I didn’t deserve to feel what I was feeling. 

I frequently see a version of this in my clients who are aware of their privilege. They define their problems as “First World” or “Champagne” and feel shame for struggling alongside all that they have “to be grateful for.” The problem with this mentality, though, is that it invalidates our pain (but doesn’t alleviate it), and leaves us feeling abandoned and ashamed on top of what we’re already going through. While perspective and gratitude can offer beautiful mindset shifts, reframing without self-empathy is shaming – and makes us feel worse.

Action step: Acknowledge your privilege and practice gratitude alongside a self-compassion statement like “It’s understandable you’re feeling ______ because (the reason anyone else in your shoes might feel the same thing).” Though counterintuitive, finding perspective is actually more effective when we first give ourselves permission to feel anxious, heartbroken, or defeated. And it’s once we’ve validated and our own challenges that we can focus on advocating for others. 

5. Much of the time, anxiety is healthy and signals stress or uncertainty

As a society, we’ve conflated the term “anxiety” with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And so, we tend to make the mistake of assuming an experience of anxiety means there’s something wrong with us. In actuality, much of the time anxiety is a very normal response to abnormal circumstances. Like all uncomfortable emotions, it’s a signal meant to be investigated. When perceiving a situation accurately, anxiety is usually telling us to tells us to “Watch out!” do, or prepare for something. Without anxiety, we wouldn’t get our work done, keep our children safe, or wear masks. A healthy degree of anxiety motivates us to properly navigate stress and uncertainty. 

Action step: If you’ve noticed an increase in anxiety, instead of judging yourself or assuming you have a mental illness, consider being curious about what anxiety might be trying to tell you. Is it a sign you’ve taken on too much responsibility and need to quit, say “No,” or ask for help? Or could it be alerting you to future uncertainty and telling you that you don’t have the resources to manage potential outcomes? (an easy way to lower anxiety in this situation is playing out the worst case scenario and asking yourself “Then what?” to show that you can live with whatever happens). 

6. Self-care, play, and healthy coping mechanisms are integral to mental health

Before I left NYC, I felt supported by the structures I’d implemented for my mental health. I was part of a loving community, attended dance classes regularly, and got massages, acupuncture, and pedicures. I belonged to a co-working space, played on a soccer team, and travelled frequently. I felt proud of how productively I managed my stress and processed my difficult emotions. When the pandemic hit, I was humbled in that I realized virtually all of my self-care and coping mechanisms were dependent on a pre-pandemic world. 

Self-care, play, and healthy coping skills are integral to stress management, mental health, and well-being. Without them, we are more likely to burn out, break down, or fall into self-destructive coping patterns. This might explain why the past year saw a significant increase in overdose, addiction, and eating disorders. 

Action step: Hopefully we won’t find ourselves in a situation in which access to coping and self-care is so affected anytime soon. However, use this as an opportunity to evaluate and augment your “toolbox.” Consider practising a form of self-care every day – and remember, that can mean doing less, not more.

In conclusion, mental health is far more complex than our genetics or neurochemistry. While the past year has been remarkably challenging, it’s given all of us an opportunity to better understand what’s important for our mental health and well-being. At the end of the day, mental health is a regular practice, not a destination – and we are all deserving of the self-knowledge necessary for influencing factors within our control.

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