Many articles and much commentary have been devoted to mental health since the pandemic began. Some people were very cognizant of how the extended quarantine and altered daily life were going to impact everyone, but I don’t think most people were aware how deeply it would go and how many would be affected.
Everyone has been so focused on the physical threat of the virus, justifiably so, that they didn’t realize there’s going to be a mental health pandemic that comes after this. I understand the thinking, because like in a war zone, you want to stop the physical death first, but as we’ve seen with so many people, PTSD is a serious problem and it has serious consequences. It’s not just soldiers coming back from war who are going to be dealing with PTSD. Everyone has some trauma from a year of isolation and quarantine and fear and change and loss of jobs and loss of finances and everything being upended. Those daily traumas have created so much anxiety and depression and we have few resources and no system in place to help people with that.
Now that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic with the arrival of widespread vaccinations, people are eager to get back to normal, but that normal doesn’t exist anymore. Every single person on the planet has been profoundly changed by the last year. Society seems the think there are two groups when it comes to mental health—normal people and crazy people. The truth is mental health is a part of everyone’s life, just like physical health. At one time or another everyone will have a mental health problem because of stress at work, a bad breakup, the loss of a loved one and myriad other everyday occurrences.
While I no longer have shame talking about my mental health, it is still a very taboo subject for a lot of people. When you feel shame about something and can’t talk about it for fear of ostracism or punishment, the problem doesn’t just go away. In fact it gets worse, because it is growing and festering underneath the surface. People have spent the last year just trying to function on a daily basis and if they haven’t been also taking care of their mental health, there’s a lot that’s going to be bubbling up now that the physical threat is gone.
The stigma around mental health and people thinking you’re crazy is a huge block to getting help. Most people suffer in silence. My first suicidal thoughts were at the age of nine. I did not get help for my depression until I was twenty years old. We need to do better than that. Now that I’ve been open about my mental health issues for so long, I don’t have any hesitancy talking about it, even with complete strangers, but that isn’t the case for most people.
If someone tells you they are depressed and thinking about suicide and your response is we can’t let the neighbors know, what you’ve essentially said to your loved one is—I would rather you kill yourself than have other people think poorly of me. That’s not what you intended but that’s what the other person hears. If you gossip about someone saying she’s “crazy,” anyone who hears that who has emotional problems will not come to you or most likely anyone for help, because they will be afraid of being labeled the same.
I hated the ending of the Hunger Games series because even though Katniss won, she lost. Twenty years later she still had PTSD and was barely functioning. That’s not winning to me. That’s losing an entire life. In our drive to keep people alive, we’ve lost our way on people actually living and enjoying that life. It’s not enough to still be breathing. Being miserable but still breathing is what hell is. Hell isn’t what you get for living a bad or mean or evil life. Hell is disconnecting from who you are while still living in this body.
I spend equal amounts of time every day on my physical and mental health. I’ve written before about my routine, which changes from time to time, but I zealously guard my time. Exercise and meditation are essential for me. It’s not if I have time—I make the time. It is nonnegotiable. Having that maintenance be an everyday occurrence makes mental health more on par with brushing your teeth or drinking enough water. It needs to be viewed as part of overall well-being not as some deep dark secret.
We all benefit from improvements in mental health. There isn’t as much volatility in the air. People are able to see different perspectives. Happy people are kind to people. Relaxed people know there’s time and space for everyone. Well-balanced people are able to view conflict and adversity calmly and to find a satisfactory solution. This pandemic has caused a lot of upheaval, but maybe it has also cleared the way for us to have a productive conversation about all the mental health issues that it has brought up and find a better way forward.