Why has COVID been so bad for people’s mental health?

It hasn’t been good…

We went from historically 1 in 5 people struggling with mental health issues to now, 1 in 3 or even 1 in 2 according to various estimate.

Honestly, our mental health has gotten so bad so fast, it’s been hard to track. Therapists are overwhelmed. People have been struggling to even get into therapy based on overwhelming demand.

And perhaps most tragic of all, it’s affected our kids the worst.

I’m going to try to offer a relatively simple answer to a very complex question without getting too lost in the weeds. Here goes!

There are two main reasons COVID has been so hard for our mental health:

1. Job displacement
2. Social Isolation

That’s it! Primary factors #1 and #2 right there.

 

But that’s the easy part of the answer. The more curious part of answer is, what are the ramifications of these factors and what do we do about them?

First, a quick recap:

As we all know, the world changed in March of 2020. Those who could continue to work remotely pivoted to virtual work. Those who needed to continue to work in-person did so at a risk to themselves and their families for the betterment of our society and its ability to continue to function. Those who couldn’t switch to virtual and we deemed “non-essential” by the government took a big hit.

 

Job Displacement

 

Voltaire says that “Work saves us from three great evils: bordem, vice, and need,” and while I would make the argument that the vast majority of Americans are working too much, not having purposeful work at all is also a painful state.

This great job displacement, reflected by skyrocketing unemployment, put a strain on both men and women alike.

For men, we are often regarded as “protectors” and “providers” for our families. Not being able to financially provide for one’s family is huge blow to a man’s sense of identity in our society.

This was without a doubt a large contributing factor to the skyrocketing numbers of overdoses that we saw throughout this time period. Drugs were used as a means to numb this feeling of depression and led to even more deaths of despair.

For women, many had to leave to leave the workplace to provide child care for an educational system that could no longer act as a dual educational/child care institution, but rather, was only able to offer virtual leaning. For many, this required parental supervisor and guidance throughout the day limiting one’s ability to work.

To cope with children not going to a separate physical location for school, for those who maintained their jobs, their strain levels went up. 9 to 5 work hours went out the window and people found themselves working well into the late evenings and midnight hours, often sacrificing sleep and their own health, just to try to keep up with work demands.

For kids, routine went out the window too. Time spent on their phones and labtops skyrocketed. Time for interactive play and structured social activities was now replaced with online learning, video games, and Tik Tok.

Lastly, for all of us, even with the vaccine available, people were and are still dying. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Grandparents were isolated in care homes. People are grieving, not just the loss of lives, but the loss of normalcy.

 

Social Isolation

 

In order to keep ourselves physically safe from COVID we were instructed to practice social distancing. This meant limiting human contact to the small circle of people possible, wearing masks, and standing at a distance.

Communal events like concerts, sports games, church outings, and even AA/NA meetings were cancelled. It took time to pivotal to virtual platforms, and let’s be honest, this did not appeal to everyone.

We as human beings only made it to this point as a species because of our ability to function as a tribe. We’re biologically wired for this in-person connection, touch, and communication.

Now, I’m not saying we should have not practiced social distancing. Social distancing was and is still necessary to slow and prevent the spread of COVID. What I am saying, is the pros of social distancing came at the cost of increased deaths of despair: overdoses, alcoholic liver disease, and suicides.

I read a study once that said that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. I would argue that having to social distance made us all a bit lonelier throughout this pandemic.

Between job displacement that has yet to fully rebound and social isolation that has yet to return to pre-COVID norms, the question is….

What can we do to improve our mental health?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. The ideal answer of getting back to concerts and crowded gyms still comes with risk. It seems unlikely that the world will shut down to the extent that we did back in 2020, but schools are still having to switch back to remote learning, sporting events are still being affected, and concerts are still being cancelled.

We will likely have to live with this for some time to come.

In the meantime, we can do the obvious things: get outside more often, exercise, be kind to one another, get vaccinated to help slow the spread…

For me, the take away is this. It may not be as ideal to wear a mask or connect via a Zoom meeting, but we can’t fall into the all-or-nothing trap. A virtual connection is still better than no connection at all. A mask only covers our face, it doesn’t have to dampen our hearts.

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