A lot has been written about mental health and the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m not going to repeat all the articles and reports which have shown that the pandemic, the lockdowns, the anxiety, isolation and uncertainty have all impacted massively on mental health. It’s obvious really. Yet while we are all so occupied with a menace which threatens our physical health, it’s more important than ever to be thinking, and caring about, our mental health.
I’ve written before about how the term ‘mental health’ has taken on some unfortunate connotations. Too often, people assume that as soon as those two words are mentioned, we’re talking about a diagnosable illness. Of course, illnesses such as anxiety disorder, clinical depression, eating disorders, bi-polar are captured under the term. But so is the universal need, too often overlooked, to care for our mental wellbeing as much as we do about our physical health. Mental health covers the whole sprectrum from feeling good, to feeling a bit meh, to feeling like the world is ending. Just as physical health covers the spectrum from feeling strong, fit and energised, to feeling a bit meh, to feeling like the physical thing that carries you through this life is breaking down.
A stand-up comic, of all people, verbalised the impact of the current pandemic better than anyone I’ve come across recently. The pandemic has cast us all into a state where the future seems uncertain, unknowable and undesirable, where the present is full of anxiety about the past, present and future, and we lose joy in doing the things we used to enjoy. An invisible enemy has done that to us. And look in any medical dictionary, and that very state that the virus has induced (whether we have caught it or not), comes very very close to the definition of depression.
Even if you have not been directly effected by this virus, even if you consider yourself lucky or fortunate to have made it through 2020 so far pretty unscathed and untouched by everything that’s going on, we are, at the end of the day, all living through this together. Even if we’re told to stay in our physical bubbles, we don’t socially experience this world in little bubbles of our own. We’re a community, a society, a species that is intimately connected. Coronavirus has shown this to be more true than ever in the way that an illness born in a city in China has spread across the world. But on a more intrinsic, psychological, emotional and social level, we are all, and have always been, individual stitches in a great tapestry of life, interwoven with everyone around us.
We don’t socially exprience the world in little bubbles
So it is not surprising or irrational or weak or pathetic to then be impacted by the events of this year negatively; for them to induce low mood, anxiety, panic – depression. In fact, in a world that is as uncertain, scary, threatening, gloomy as ours is right now, it is the most natural response. Even if not consciously, we are all subconsciously being battered, worn down, drained by the constant bombardment of the happenings of the global pandemic. So if you are feeling low, scared, anxious, ‘depressed’ right now, if life feels uncertain, if joy is hard to come by, that just means that you’re human. We’re programmed to feel that way.
My over riding emotion over the past 6 months has just been sadness. Sadness that so much has been lost: not only the millions of lives, but the opportunities, the potentials, the joys of ‘the before’ and of the future that has been stolen. Loss.
So, this World Mental Health Day, I think the message that should be loudest is that while we are all wearing masks, washing our hands, physical distancing, to care for our physical health, we need to be taking just as many measures to care for our mental health. In fact, their equally as important.
Unfortunately, how we each care for our mental health isn’t as clear cut as ‘wash your hands more often’, or ‘wear a face mask’. We are all beautifully unique, which means that how one of us cares for our mental health will be slightly different to how someone else does. So it’s about finding the prescription that works for you: some find mindfulness to be the best vaccination, others cooking their favourite food, or reading, or listening to music, or being with loved ones.
How are you?
But there are some measures that are as universal as washing hands and wearing face masks. And they’re just as simple. ‘How are you?’ are three words that can be as powerful as a tank of oxygen to someone in intensive care with Covid-19. Listening to someone can make you the ICU nurse that that person needs. Talking to someone, truthfully, however hard, about how you feel, can be the medication that gets you out of the danger zone. Simple steps, but so powerful. So let’s all make sure that we are asking ourselves how we are and listening to how we feel. And let’s all make sure to ask those we love how they are, and listen.
At a time when we all have to take precautions to care for our own and everyone else’s physical health, let’s make sure we’re doing the same with our mental health.