On Mental Health During a Pandemic

Between the recent, high profile demands for more space for mental heath by athletes like Namoi Osaka and Simone Biles and the frantic plea of parents to get kids back in school for everyone’s mental health, emotional wellness is forcing its way into mainstream conversation, largely because of its long overlooked absence. It is hard to talk about being mentally well, when admitting when we are not is subject to criticism and shame. This is the moment to make progress toward living healthier emotional lives.

There is a difference between being mentally unhealthy and mental illness. I know that it is easy in memes and tiktok to reduce our current feelings into a mental illness, but the reality is that mental illness has many layers beyond just our feelings in the moment. It is true that mental illness is on the rise during this time and suicide attempts and completions are increasing among young people. It is also true that a significant proportion of these may be due to untreated mental illness that pre-existed this pandemic time and was exacerbated by being alone.

We are all having moments of being mentally unhealthy right now, especially young people. I have been doing a LOT of learning about emotional intelligence and mental health (I can give you more references if you like!) and there are two key ideas that come forth in that that I think apply to this moment of collective trauma, grief and, in some cases, excruciating monotony that we are all living through:

First, it is important to ACCURATELY identify what you are feeling. Too many times we jump to the wrong word and feel that we cannot address our current state – for example, when people say they are SO STRESSED, but that can mean SO MANY different things! You can be overwhelmed, feeling pressured to succeed, exhausted, and each of those things requires different action on our parts and needs different support.

Second, We can and should regulate our emotions. You don’t need to sit in your feelings and we need to actively do something to change our mindset. You have no obligation to stay sad just because it is overwhelming you – that doesn’t mean you need to suddenly be happy to please other people. Rather, it means that you need to recognize that you are feeling sad, consider why you are feeling sad and then regulate – for example, you might be feeling sad right now because you miss friends, but you really need to finish a paper right now, a healthy choice would be to send a quick text/email/whatever to a person on your mind to set up a time to talk AFTER you finish your paper. In terms of mental health, this accomplishes MANY important things – you are connecting with another person, you are setting a small goal and achieving it and then you get the reward of time with someone you care about. That is really really good for your brain.

Overall, I think we need to shift the conversation to talking about things we can do to be mentally healthier rather than labeling ourselves with mental illness. Being mentally healthier doesn’t require a therapist (though those are always helpful!!!) or medication; you can do some positive self talk by focusing on what you CAN do, you can go for a walk, you can exercise, you can meditate, you can change your environment – literally turning your chair or desk to face a different direction or sitting in a different space really helps (this is why so many people work in coffee shops in addition to free wifi!) – or listen to different music (why do you think people love vibing?!?).

It is clear that the pandemic is changing and we are being required to adapt quickly. While we thought that there was an end in sight, the journey through this pandemic is still uncertain and rocky. Making fundamental changes in the way that we look at mental wellness will make traveling this rocky road (and the future ahead) easier.

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