It’s been Mental Health Awareness Month during a pandemic.
When we look back at this time, people will have different memories of their experiences: Some will remember changes in job duties and extra time for leisure. Others will remember intense pressure and stress as essential workers. Still others will remember the despair due to unemployment and financial worries. We all will remember how the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our routines and affected our mental well-being: It impeded our freedom to go outside, abilities to pursue the activities we want to do, and usual opportunities to express ourselves.
Wearing a face covering may mask the expressions of displeasure and anxiety on our faces, but it does not diminish the discomfort and worry we feel within. As many in our community try to avoid illness, some will fall ill and and others will succumb to death. There are reasons to grieve.
Because discomfort and anxiety are internal experiences, our culture often frames these reactions as a personal problem—a disorder of one individual mind. However, this pandemic has had adverse effects on everyone. Many of us are feeling the same emotions. These are unsurprising reactions to an unexpected and (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime situation.
We must avoid medicalizing these reactions. Individuals receive psychiatric diagnoses within specific contexts. Our reactions as a result of the the pandemic are collective experiences within the same context. It is unfair to argue that all people experiencing distress during this pandemic have psychiatric disorders. This argument also undermines opportunities for communities to support their own members who are suffering.
Not all distress reaches the threshold for a clinical diagnosis, especially during extraordinary times. While mental health professionals can help people who feel anxiety and sadness, that doesn’t mean that increasing the number of mental health professionals and their services is the primary solution during this pandemic. Most people feeling worry and anguish now will not need specialized services. Support from people from the same culture or context can and will help people tolerate and then grow from these emotional experiences. Relationships, stemming from faith traditions, hobbies, cultural groups, and friendships, are invaluable during these times of stress, loss, and grief. Providing education and resources to the community at large, such as through programs like Mental Health First Aid,[1. You can learn more about Mental Health First Aid here. I have no affiliation with them.] can help ensure that those in our community receive attention and emotional support. Communities can also provide support through other concrete means, such as financial donations, food assistance, and employment opportunities. Though individuals should remain six feet apart, the distance does not dilute the healing power of relationships.
To be clear, some individuals do experience levels of distress due to the pandemic that warrant professional mental health intervention and support. This does not mean that they have meaningless relationships or are “weak”. We often do not know the struggles people endure. Complications from the pandemic can overwhelm already strained internal and external resources.
We are living through an extraordinary time in history. We are all experiencing psychological stress, though perhaps at different frequencies and intensities. There is nothing routine about our external circumstances, so there is nothing routine about our internal experiences, either. The pandemic has demonstrated how interconnected we are. Let us focus not on individual distress, but focus instead on how we can all help each other during this difficult time. This will not only bolster the mental well-being of others, but will help our mental health, too.