A Tale of Two Pandemics: Solutions for Mental Health Challenges in the Era of COVID-19

A Tale of Two Pandemics: Solutions for Mental Health Challenges in the Era of COVID-19

April 15, 2021

Despite positive news with increased vaccinations across the country, and more states attempting to return to some semblance of normalcy, we are still battling for our health and safety. Unfortunately, as we fight against COVID-19 and its seeming endless “waves,” physicians, clinicians and researchers have noticed a different wave, or pandemic of its own magnitude, of mental health challenges and the sequela of a virus on our bodies, brains and psychosocial supports and structures.

People have been hit hard, some of which occurred through needed restrictive safety measures to stop the spread of the virus. Isolation, loneliness, and high stress have been commonplace. Others have met with financial challenges, housing and food instability, changes to family dynamic and interaction, and other general changes to our lifestyles. It is fair to say that even the most resilient of us have struggled to cope with the enormous changes the pandemic has placed on us individually and as a community. Many others are facing full psychiatric diagnoses related to anxiety disorders, depression, substance use disorders, trauma-based disorders, insomnia, and suicidality; illnesses created by or exacerbated by this pandemic. We are seeing increasing numbers of people in all age groups with symptoms that are exacerbated by the pandemic psychosocial strains, and we are left with numerous questions regarding the profound mental health burden of COVID-19 in the present and unknown future.

What are symptoms many of us are facing versus a clinical syndrome needing intervention and treatment? What does “self-care” mean, especially as this seemingly unending pandemic remains? How can someone prevent pandemic burnout when work or household engagement may be the only social interactions we have had for weeks or months? Do those fleeting moments (dinner at our favorite restaurant, a quick, distanced walk with a friend, an in-gym workout, etc.) fill that barometer of normal, healthy experiences we crave or need? How do we connect with others, that innately human condition that fuels our soul, in an age where we now subconsciously “socially distance?” Did COVID-19 make us all crazy or highlight existing problems we were not acknowledging? And so on.

As a psychiatrist, these questions only increase my concerns on how we begin to address the concurrent and the coming, inevitable mental health crisis that will likely plague us for months or years to come, in an already short-staffed, low-resourced system of care.

But there may be answers that we can do on our own to tackle some of these issues to avert some crises. Here are 5 solutions that we as individuals can take to mitigate our stress and fight back against mental health challenges we are facing at this moment.

  1. Examine your stress. How much of your current challenges are pandemic-related? Acknowledge “BC” (Before-Covid) stress. Is it worse or different? More chronic or impactful? Are you blaming the pandemic and assuming that with recent positive news that a “pre-existing condition” is going to go away? Remember that research is identifying that just surviving the pandemic can lead to mental health symptoms and eventual diagnoses, while surviving COVID-19 itself may increase your chances of having a psychiatric manifestation in the coming months (possibly 1/3 of those that contracted the virus, with 13% of those individuals having their first mental health diagnosis). Reflect on your current status to determine your particular needs.
  2. Connections are key. In numerous replicated studies, individuals that are socially connected live longer and have less physical and mental health challenges. While many of us have felt isolated during the pandemic, those that are functioning better are those interacting with others. Interestingly, it seems that “social integration” is helpful in fighting against mental health problems right now—meaning any types of social interactions may be helpful. Intimate, work-related, or social. Friends, coworkers, or family. We are, by nature, social animals, and these interactions are protective for our mental health—and any setting can be beneficial. Through technology, socially-distanced meet-ups, or in safe environments (i.e. vaccinated meetings), even the most introverted of us need to get out and socialize.
  3. Activity! Go outdoors or exercise. For many, both options have been out of reach due to weather, restrictions, and stress. Several studies are showing those with more physical activity have better mental health right now. Some have been working out to ameliorate mental health issues, and it is working, according to research. For those that are isolating and not getting active, the more their mental health symptoms are increasing. Those that are feeling more anxious and depressed are exercising less, creating a cyclical dilemma. Even minor, low-impact activity is beneficial. Make it a social activity (two birds, one stone), but use this new season to “Spring” into action.
  4. Tune-out and Tune-In.  It can feel like we are inundated with negativity on an almost continual basis. This may be pandemic-related, but also includes daily stress, local or world news, drama on social media, or just simple racket in our daily lives. Turn it off and take a break. Tune-in to you. What have you been missing or putting off? When is the last time you had a peaceful moment to reflect or engage with yourself? Embrace tranquility and identify your needs. Self-care, whatever it looks like to you, is vital and should be a priority during these difficult times. Take some needed space, you deserve it.
  5. Ask for Help. Probably the most challenging point that requires honest reflection on your part. Has the stress become something of its own beast? Are you feeling stressed daily or on such a continual basis that it is impacting your daily routine? Mental health and its treatment can be unfairly stigmatizing and scary, but help can be truly beneficial. Therapy can be helpful in a variety of scenarios and does not necessary equate to a diagnosis. It does give you a space to vent and learn to deal with stress. If mental health challenges have escalated to chronic anxiety, depression, insomnia, substance misuse, suicidality, or some other manifestation, please seek professional help. Medications may be necessary, and an expert’s advice should be able to alleviate your struggles. Again, this has been a stressful time for all of us—use your resources and ask for help if you are struggling. As I tell my patients, we are all in this together!

***The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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