As we close in on a full year of living with the stresses and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the toll on mental health continues to mount. The arrival of a vaccine brings a glimmer of hope that the worst will be behind us soon – but not before the long, dark winter months have passed.
This time of year, with its reduced daylight and cold temperatures, can present mental health challenges for many as it is. Add in the pandemic and it’s no wonder that more than one in three Americans is showing clinical signs of anxiety or depression – and the impact is disproportionately high among women, Black and Latinx Americans.
So what can we do to help ourselves and our loved ones feel better? Recognize. Reflect. Recharge. Reach Out.
Recognize the Signs of Depression
It’s important to recognize developing signs of depression in yourself and others so that you can take steps to try and alleviate it. But recognizing depression isn’t always easy. More often than we realize, depression occurs among people who look “okay.” While media depictions of depression have led those of us fortunate enough not to suffer from this debilitating illness to believe that depressed people stand out, they usually don’t.
However, there are some signs you can look for:
Research has related the onset of physical pain to the neurotransmitters and chemicals in the brain functioning in an abnormal way. Depression can also lower your immune system, making it harder for the body to fight infection – something that’s never desirable, but especially in the midst of a pandemic.
If you recognize any of the above signs in yourself or others, read on for what to do next…
Reflect On Your Feelings With Understanding and Perspective
One of the difficult things about depression is that it can turn into a vicious cycle. The worse we feel, the more we beat ourselves up about it – only to come away feeling even worse. It’s important to give yourself and others a bit of extra understanding during this difficult time, and to understand that it’s perfectly normal to feel a bit of sadness, loneliness and anxiety when day-to-day life and the world as we all knew it has changed so drastically.
If you begin to notice signs of depression in yourself, take a moment to reflect on your thoughts and feelings. Remind yourself that it’s OK to feel challenged by all of this; it’s OK to be angry or frustrated. And then, just as important, remind yourself that this too shall pass and there are better days ahead. Think about all the things that are still wonderful in your life – all those things for which you can still be grateful.
While this type of personal reflective thinking may not completely remove all your negative feelings, it can sometimes help to ease them a great deal. Depression can be caused by many factors, and not all of them can be solved so easily; but if the circumstances of living through COVID are playing a large part in your feelings of depression, these steps can help.
If you believe a friend or family member is struggling, you can help them to reflect in this way as well in order to find some relief. When you are able, be someone people can reach out to, someone who offers compassion. Listen; not to respond, just to hear. Foster real connections; just one person who offers genuine empathy makes a difference. Similar to the way one teacher can change the entire trajectory of a child’s life, supportive bonds predict adult outcomes as well.
Recharge by adding a little extra activity – and maybe even extra light – to your life.
Physical activity as well as being mentally engaged in activities that you enjoy are known to be beneficial to mental health. But with restrictions on gyms and other activities in place and snow on the ground outside, it can be difficult to remain active in the ways that we’re used to. But it is certainly not impossible.
Be sure that you continue to get plenty of exercise, even if it can’t be at the gym. Do a workout video at home, or even take some laps up and down your stairs. If the sidewalks are clear, take a brisk walk each day – this provides the added benefit of some therapeutic fresh air and extra sunlight, both of which can help to life your spirits. Or, if it’s too cold and icy, try to find an indoor location like a mall or even your office building, where you can get in a walk while maintaining the proper COVID precautions of social distancing and wearing a mask.
If you are someone who typically finds themselves feeling a little low during the dark winter months, you may be suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Think about investing in a specialized lightbox so you can provide yourself with a bit of light therapy right at home.
Reach Out for Help
If none of the above measures are providing you any relief, you should reach out to your doctor or mental health professional for help. Just as it’s important to recognize the signs of developing depression, it’s just as important to recognize when those symptoms become too much for you to manage on your own.
If you or a friend or loved one is experiencing depression or another behavioral health concern, help is abundant and accessible here at Harrington HealthCare:
With mental illness steadily on the rise across the nation, there has been a lot of media attention surrounding the reduction of the stigma attached to the disease. But despite the upsurge in alleged diagnoses, reports and statistics, one critical factor is missing in educating the public about mental illness: The stark difference between a mental emergency and a medical one.
Imagine your loved one has just collapsed and can’t consent to a transport to the emergency department. But they’re rushed to the hospital for life-saving treatment. Doctors tell you they’ve had a heart attack. He/she is stabilized, maybe admitted for a few days and sent home with instructions on cardiac rehabilitation.
In this case, doctors have provided tangible medical intervention, restored function and encourage outpatient treatment. If you fail to follow-up with outpatient care, your condition could return and/or worsen, causing further decline and, over time, may even cause loss of life. However, your hospitalization has set you on a path to recovery and you are motivated to engage in follow-up, ultimately returning to your previous level of functioning.
Now imagine your brain, also a vital organ, has experienced a crisis. You are feeling unsafe, experiencing terrifying thoughts or emotions. Your family calls 911 and mobile crisis, the equivalent of the behavioral health paramedics, comes to your home.
Like the heart attack victim, by nature of your illness you find yourself unable to consent to treatment. In this instance, unless you’ve expressed intent to imminently hurt yourself or others, treatment experts will not rush in and implement life-saving treatment. Rather, in the absence of imminent, foreseeable harm to yourself or others, you are discharged with no stabilization. Experts recommend that you follow up outpatient; they ask you to consider a stabilization program, evaluation by an outpatient therapist, and possibly medication to stabilize you. You don’t seek further treatment, and in the absence of follow-up your symptoms worsen, causing further decline and potentially even loss of life.