The band Soundgarden has a great quote in the song Outshined, “I’m looking California but feeling Minnesota.” This is an apt description in the middle of a pandemic. A lot of people I know act the part of a carefree surfer, or perhaps aggressive innovator, but how often do outward appearances hide underlying darkness. Many people effectively govern internal conflicts and outside actions, and when the world is normal life is manageable. What happens to coping mechanisms in a crisis though? How do we help people that are struggling, and what lessons from 2020 must we preserve to reduce the toll in future crises?
Death, trauma, instability, or anything outside our range of what is considered “normal” can make people mentally and physically sick. Even people with access to the best resources struggle. Tony Hsieh’s tragic death is a perfect example of how the best of us sometimes fail.
Without the right support, people are prone to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms. This was always true, even before the pandemic. My cousin overdosed and died in 2018. It happened on a Wednesday in March. He suffered from addiction for years and lost the battle that day. Social media, entertainment, cultural stereotypes, and unconscious biases only make the situation worse. For many people, it’s not okay to be vulnerable. As the pandemic rages and eventually fades, people sharing their experiences of how they’ve overcome adversity – mental illness, economic hardship, alcoholism, oppression – is a foundational tool that can help people heal.
There is so much healing power when two people have an honest conversation about what they’ve been through.
For this to work, it’s sometimes necessary to look for clues. People need empathy and acceptance to talk to each other. One clue to watch is how people’s actions align with their words. Sometimes actions betray feelings that are left unsaid. My 4-year-old is a happy kid. As the pandemic progresses, she’s clingier, and comes to sleep in our bed at night, telling us, “I’m lonely in my room.” Her eating habits are erratic. These are symptoms of anxiety in young kids. She doesn’t know how to talk about feelings in the way that an adult might. We must rely on observed behaviors instead of words. Unlike a 4-year-old, adults and teenagers have the capacity to talk about feelings but lack the vocabulary to do it.
My older kids (aged 13 and 15) don’t want to talk about anything – because teenagers. When asked if they’re doing okay, the answer is a shrug. If feelings are talked about, we get, “I’m okay”, but behaviors again point to some level of dysfunction. Their grades have dropped this year, not because the work is harder but because they don’t turn in assignments or fall asleep and miss a zoom session. We’re lucky that both kids are good students. They’re able to show up and do the work without needing much help. Now they need extra attention and structure to manage.
My personal experiences are small examples of what can happen to a stable family facing uncertainty. We are unbelievably lucky to have the problems we have. The pandemic’s impact on mental health is far reaching. 2020 amplified life’s pain and joy and hardship while putting people in isolation, separated from many of the routines they rely on to stay healthy. According to a CDC study from June, “…approximately twice as many respondents reported serious consideration of suicide in the previous 30 days than did adults in the United States in 2018, referring to the previous 12 months (10.7% versus 4.3%)” Drug overdose deaths are also significantly higher – up 38% from June 2019 to May 2020.
People are hurting and public health mechanisms are not enough. As an individual, I want to help, but my reach is small. One person talking to another person about how they’ve overcome difficult circumstances is one unbelievably powerful solution that is available to everyone. It is so easy to believe that my problems are unique and special and that no one could possibly understand what I’m going through. Fear and shame make me want to hide away. When I take the step to admit a problem to the world, I’ve never ever regretted it. There is always someone else with a similar experience. When we talk about it, it loses its power.
The internet has endless examples to research and statistics tell different stories, depending on how you’re influenced by confirmation bias. For now, I’ll rely on personal experience. I suffered for years from clinical depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. I was hospitalized multiple times because I was suicidal. Were my circumstances particularly bad? No, but they were enough to leave me in an awful place. I’ve been healthy for almost a decade now; had a lot of help getting healthy; and must work hard to stay healthy.