A double crisis and a silver lining
Idon’t know about you, but I am not going back to business as usual. As a mental health professional, I’ve seen too much.
I now work from home and Zoom with clients. They struggle with depression, suicidal tendencies and anxiety. For many, the virus has only made their symptoms worse.
Andrew Soloman, a leading expert on depression who himself suffers from depression, recently called the COVID-19 pandemic a double crisis: both the obvious physical health crisis and the less appreciated and less visible mental health crisis.
A recent United Nations report warns that the pandemic is generating a mental health crisis. The World Health Organization reports a 45% increase in prevalence of distress in the United States. After suffering dizzy spells and collapsing at work, an ER doctor who is a client of mine has had to face that he is exhausted, and his depression has returned. He realizes he must do more to take care of himself, or he will not be able to return to work and be of service to those who need him.
Despite the recent decisions to move toward opening and lessening of restrictions, many people still fear getting the virus or having a loved one become infected. These fears and the restrictions have led to social isolation.
On top of this are the millions of people losing jobs. Demographic studies indicate that a 1% increase in unemployment leads to a 1.6% increase in suicides. Suicide, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, undue stress, loneliness and collective trauma have all been documented on the increase.
As far as suicide, the U.S. rates have been steadily increasing since 1998, but with the pandemic, the rates are expected to take a major jump. The case of Lorna Breen, an ER doctor in New York City who treated coronavirus patients and died by suicide recently in Charlottesville, is tragic. It was reported that she did not have a history of mental illness.
This pandemic is happening
This pandemic is happening in the U.S. with a broken mental health system and staggeringly high levels of unemployment and no safety net. This adds up to people with less money
being likely to not have their mental health problems diagnosed or treated.
in the U.S. with a broken mental health system and staggeringly high levels of unemployment and no safety net. This adds up to people with less money being likely to not have their mental health problems diagnosed or treated. The limits and loopholes of the Mental Health Parity Act and problems accessing mental health care all contribute to a mental health crisis.
Unlike physical health, there is a stigma about having and getting help for mental illness. Just look at the recent bills passed in Congress in response to the pandemic. Only a very small percentage is going to mental health. This splitting of physical health and mental health misses the reality that they are intricately interrelated.
There’s a mountain of research on how mental stress is correlated with inflammation and chronic disease. Depression weakens the immune system and can interfere with sleep. Because of the pandemic, we’re all experiencing levels of grief, loss, insecurity and loneliness in ways we never would have foreseen.
While the health crises are real and many are suffering, there are also indications of change. People are simplifying their lives, taking more walks, slowing down and reflecting on what is most important. For those fortunate enough, it has been a time of quiet and reflection and seeing new possibilities. Others are connecting to a creative part of themselves previously unexpressed.
Zoom calls have brought extended families together more often. I am helping people use this opportunity for growth and self-exploration, to increase their selfcompassion and engage in acts of kindness. Some have vowed to not go back to the way their lives were before.
What else do my fellow therapists and I tell clients? Continue your frequent conversations and quarantine walks with your partner and family. Start a regular meditation practice in earnest. Work from home or ask your boss for wellness breaks throughout the workday for a better work/ life balance. When I return to the office, I plan to get there by bicycle.
There are deeply troubling patterns in how we are living our lives that are not sustainable and will not prepare us for the future. This time is a unique opportunity to reassess our personal and social lives. It’s a perfect time to realign our behaviors with our deepest values so that there will be a viable future for ourselves, our planet and the youngest generation’s dreams.