The COVID-19 Pandemic Shows Why We Need to Treat Mental Health as Physical Health
Our brains part of our bodies, so our minds impact our physical well-being. Our mental health impacts our lives and the lives of those we come into contact with in a myriad of ways. And yet so often, still, mental health is not prioritized. Our physical injuries, wounds, illnesses and visible conditions are generally acknowledged and treated, while our invisible pain, mental fatigue and wordless emotional suffering is often ignored, invalidated, minimized and left by the wayside.
Our minds and bodies are inextricably linked — they are one and the same thing, really — and yet our mental health is frequently taken for granted, overlooked, bypassed and even treated with disdain in a way that our physical bodies often are not.
This is not to say that our physical health always receives the best care — just that we are far more likely to tend to a broken limb than we are to our grief, depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts and maladaptive coping. We’ve been conditioned to care less about our minds, to criticize ourselves for any mental distress we experience and to push through as though it’s of no consequence. These are some for the thoughts that went through my head when I read that the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day was “mental health for all.” What gets in the way of this being a reality?
How many times have we been told “mind over matter” or “those are only feelings?” We exist in a capitalist, white supremacist society that places a high value on being productive, disconnecting from self, sacrificing one’s needs, restrictive eating, sleep deprivation, running on empty, “powering through,” setting aside personal core values and fitting some unattainable (and in my opinion, unappealing) ideal. We are shamed into silence, constantly fed messages that make us believe that having emotions is bad, opening up is too big a risk, being vulnerable is a sign of weakness, having mental health struggles is a character flaw and, in general, that we must be defective to be feeling any of what we are experiencing. We face rejection if we fall outside a “good vibes only” illusion, are met with ridicule if we don’t just grin and bear it, and stigma if we name what ails us, even more so if we seek out treatment and/or happen to be diagnosed with a mental illness.
All of these messages are internalized, strengthened over time as we have more encounters telling us to keep our struggles to ourselves, that we aren’t trying hard enough, to just be happy, that we don’t have it as bad as some people, and that there’s no reason to be feeling these ways. It’s no wonder that many people feel so alone, and go through life feeling they don’t matter.
Can you imagine what a different world it would be if every one of us opened up honestly about our mental health? Can you envision the space this would create for people to come forward, speak their truth and receive care? Can you feel in your body what it would be like if we all felt safe enough to show up as our authentic selves? Can you take in how much more energy we’d all have if we were real and raw about mental health matters? What would it be like to acknowledge when you need help, and to actually receive that care? How would it feel to meet yourself with compassion, and to nurture that compassion so that you can extend it to others without feeling empty or numb? What if every time someone asked you “How are you,” you paused to check in with yourself and answered honestly in the moment, not automatically replying “I’m fine, how are you?” Or the next time someone told you how they are truly feeling, you stopped to take it in, listening with your whole self and being fully present with them in that moment. Consider the difference even these small shifts in our daily interactions could make.
What gets in the way of us speaking up about and caring for our mental health? Why, as a society, do we continue to shrink from the discussion of mental health, shun anyone who struggles with mental health and put walls up around anyone who dares to open up about these issues? Lack of awareness and knowledge, fear, shame, hopelessness, trauma, disconnection from self and others, unequal access to resources, exhaustion from the day to day grind, financial pressures, lack of community and/or support of any kind, culture, belief systems and so much more create barriers that are hard to tear down. At times it can seem like an impossible task, to cut through these barriers but I believe it can be done. I believe it is happening, little by little. Every single person that tells their story is helping to dismantle stigma, cutting through the ignorance and fear that swirls around mental health issues.
It’s strange and frustrating that mental health continues to be made to be “othered,” cut off from our bodies. Across social media and on many other fronts, we are inundated by products and services claiming to be wellness orientated, and while on the surface that may seem like we are moving in the right direction, many come from a capitalist mindset, are inherently racist and are not trauma-informed. They tell us how we should be, what to aspire to, what we need to do or not do, and what to believe. They ask us to sign up and fit in, rather than meeting us where we are. They make promises they cannot keep. They are for some, but not all. When something doesn’t work, we are made to feel it’s our fault, we are the failures. We take in the message that something must be wrong with us because no one stops to really hear what we’re feeling, what we’ve experienced, what we’ve been through and what we need right now. And we feel cut off from ourselves. How can we help but feel this way when faced with so much disembodied and disingenuous practices? So often we are not treated as whole beings; in fact, we are barely seen or heard at all.
And here we are in the latter part of 2020, a year where collectively a greater number of people are struggling with their mental health than they have in many years previous to this one. Individually, a lot of us are not OK. Collectively, we are not OK. The circumstances we find ourselves in are not OK. These are turbulent, distressing times. Uncertainty is a part of life, but the level of uncertainty being felt by the majority of people in the United States of America has surpassed reasonable limits. Many of us are existing outside our window of tolerance for weeks or months on end. All nervous systems look for some degree of stability to feel safe and grounded, but how many feel people feel safe and secure now?
For people with preexisting mental health conditions and/or trauma disorders, hypervigilance, insomnia, nightmares, suicide ideation, dissociation, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, somatic responses, depression and more familiar experiences, but the exact conditions of this time add intensity to all this, intertwining with old trauma. For people not used to experiencing these symptoms, who haven’t struggled with their mental health in the past, the impact can be jarring. There is so much out of our control right now, many of us living day by day fearful about what’s next, asking ourselves if things will ever feel OK again. Very likely there are people who, a year ago, didn’t give mental health a second thought, but are now realizing how critical it is.
It’s impossible to survey the state of this country, this world, without considering mental health. And people are speaking up in greater numbers than they were a few years ago. People are having more honest discussions. People are letting others in. There’s something about physical distancing and a world gone online that is breaking down some walls, prompting people to connect in a different way than before. Maybe it’s because even though everyone’s exact circumstance is different, there is still a sense of being in it together. Maybe it’s because we are feeling afraid and alone. Maybe we are all just too tired to pretend we are OK when we really aren’t.
In the past few months, I’ve heard, read, watched and been part of more conversations around mental health, trauma, somatics, and well-being than I have in several years before combined. This gives me hope. Humans have bodies, and as such we all have mental health. Every single person deserves access to quality and comprehensive mental health care. Mental health is on more people’s radars in 2020, but it should have been a concern in the years before as well. I hope in the years to follow mental health will be a priority, that the discussions happening now continue and are progressed. The more voices that come together, the better shot we have at reducing and eventually ending the stigma around all mental health issues.
I’m not fine but I’m doing my best each day to keep going. I know I’m not alone in this and I hope you don’t feel alone either. Let’s keep talking. If we all agree to be real with one another we can normalize the conversation around mental health and support one another in our healing. We need to take care of one another. There’s a lot of work to do around ending the stigma around mental health and ensuring access to care for all, and we all need to do what we can to ensure both of these things happen.
Getty Images illustration via Maria Voronovich