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I’m Not ‘Selfish’ for Talking About How COVID-19 Is Affecting My Mental Health

At this point (late April), many regions are several weeks into stay-at-home orders, workplace and school closures and other efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system. At a time when we have no vaccine or antiviral, limited testing capacity and many unknowns about the properties of this virus, these measures are our best weapon, and global data is showing they are working to slow the spread. However, I want to address the many comments I have seen and heard that frame the negative effects of these measures as a mere “inconvenience” or only a matter of shallow selfishness. Countless times, I have seen people express the effects of disease control interventions on their health and safety, only to be told to “stop complaining” or “suck it up,” or given similarly dismissive responses. This needs to stop.

What follows is not a call to “reopen the economy” (a phrase which confuses me, because I do not see how an economy could possibly flourish in an uncontrolled pandemic). It is absolutely not a call to “return to normal,” nor to recklessly ignore social distancing recommendations that are saving thousands of lives. This is a call for empathy.

While there are many ways in which disease control measures have the potential to threaten health and safety, based on my own experiences, I am best equipped to talk about their effects on mental health. I have a long history of depression and anxiety, which two years ago, required a brief hospitalization. I can firmly say my mental health (and consequentially, my overall health) has taken a nosedive over the course of this pandemic. Though I certainly attribute a large part of this decline to the threat of the virus itself (both to myself and those around me), much of it stems from the loss of (in-person) social contact, support systems and coping mechanisms. Many of the things I would look forward to on bad mental health days are now gone, at least temporarily. And, right now, it feels like there is no end in sight. I know I am far from alone in experiencing this, and large numbers of people with and without previous mental health diagnoses are struggling in a similar way. Crisis hotlines and other mental health resources around the world are reporting record-breaking increases in volume.

The symptoms of mental illness can be miserable. The negative impacts of stress (which is in no way are synonymous with mental illness, though the two are often connected) and isolation on the body, including on the immune system, have been documented over decades of research. Over the past several weeks, I have had severe difficulty sleeping, difficulty tolerating food and liquids, heart palpitations and (sorry to be gross) have been spending a remarkable amount of time in the bathroom or with an emesis bag. Furthermore, mental health can be a matter of life or death. I have had several people tell me for the first time in their lives, they are experiencing suicidal ideation to various degrees, or that if they have experienced it in the past, it has been greatly intensified over the past several weeks. I am terrified of losing people to suicide in the coming months, especially considering isolation is a major risk for suicide.

I am already on medication and in therapy, which are resources many people cannot access (especially here in the United States, where health care tends to have large out-of-pocket costs and is often tied to employment). This treatment, which has been life-changing and even life-saving for me in the past, has not been able to prevent severe impacts on my health from this pandemic and its associated restrictions. It is wonderful we live in a time where advanced technology (though it is important to acknowledge and consider access to this technology is not equal) helps us stay connected and find support virtually. However, in many circumstances, it is not an adequate long-term replacement. People have different social needs and mental health needs, but I, and many people I know, are struggling as a result of severely limited in-person interactions (particularly physical touch, which has been linked with many physical and mental health benefits). Similarly, while I have felt encouraged to see many options for remote and online mental health services, these do not come without their own problems. Not everybody is safe at home, and for those living in a toxic or unsafe environment, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to speak freely with mental health resources. Additionally, with dramatically increased traffic, internet connection is not always reliable.

It is very much possible to recognize the necessity of social distancing and other disease control measures while also working to mitigate the problems they can cause. This cannot be done effectively if those talking about these negative effects are dismissed. What we need most right now (well, aside from a vaccine, antiviral, more protective equipment and better testing capacity) is empathy. That means not blocking access to hospitals to protest for your “right” to a haircut (I say as someone who recently did a sub-optimal job of trimming her own split ends). That means hearing, not dismissing, others’ struggles, even if you think their problems are “less important” than those of somebody else. That means remembering for many people, isolation and fear for health and safety (due to factors such as chronic illness and incarceration) are not just temporary, and allowing that knowledge to help us better our society. I hope in spite of the hostility I have seen in recent weeks, empathy can prevail.

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Unsplash image by Kirill Balobanov