It’s time to face the elephant in the room, the thing that’s been on all of our minds (pun intended) since the pandemic started: mental health. Maintaining good mental health can be a struggle for high schoolers, and just people in general during the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. From Zoom school, to social isolation, this special edition is all about your mind during the coronavirus.
SLIDE 1: MENTAL HEALTH BASICS
Before you can understand how the coronavirus has impacted mental health, it’s important to know what mental health even is. As Cassie Dietrich, East School Psychologist, puts it, “Mental health to me is kind of how you view yourself… No one’s perfectly happy all the time or sad all the time – everyone has their ups and downs, but mental health is how you cope with those things. So if you have positive coping skills or good strategies that work for you when you are having a rough day [that’s mental health].”
To further elaborate on that, the UK Mental Health Foundation explains that mental health is about how you deal with your surroundings. Can you manage both negative and positive emotions? Do you allow yourself to feel, and then can you express those feelings? Can you create new, healthy relationships, and keep the old ones going strong? Can you be okay with things that are out of your control? Are you able to deal with not knowing something? Are you able to learn new things as they come up?
Mental health is not black and white, or simple at all. The questions above are meant as a place to start learning about your mental health, and everybody’s different. It’s about a spectrum of mental health instead of a checklist with a perfect little box where everyone fits. According to Heads Up, an Australian organization that deals with mental health for individuals and in the workplace, “It’s important to remember that mental health is complex. The fact that someone is not experiencing a mental health condition doesn’t necessarily mean their mental health is flourishing. Likewise, it’s possible to be diagnosed with a mental health condition while feeling well in many aspects of life.”
Also notice that nowhere in this definition of mental health does it say anything about happiness. It’s possible to be happy with a mental health condition, and unhappy with good mental health. Regardless of where you’re at with your own mental health, it’s normal to have struggles and stresses along with the joys and excitements – everyone has good and bad days and limited control over their surroundings, but how you respond is what determines where you fall on the mental health spectrum.
SLIDE 2: HOW COVID-19 HAS IMPACTED MENTAL HEALTH
Mental health is always an important part of our lives, something that needs to be prioritized in the best of times and the worst. However, it is a lot harder to take care of while we’re facing the latter. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes it as follows:
“Added to the fear of contracting the virus in a pandemic such as COVID-19 are the significant changes to our daily lives as our movements are restricted in support of efforts to contain and slow down the spread of the virus,” the WHO article read. “Faced with new realities of working from home, temporary unemployment, home-schooling of children, and lack of physical contact with other family members, friends and colleagues, it is important that we look after our mental, as well as our physical, health.”
In addition to all of the stress, fear, and changes the pandemic has created, it’s harder to find help with your mental health during a pandemic as well. According to the WHO, the coronavirus has forced 93% of mental health services to change how they operate or has stopped them completely. This is in addition to the fact that “prior to the pandemic, countries were spending less than 2 percent of their national health budgets on mental health, and struggling to meet their populations’ needs.”
“And the pandemic is increasing demand for mental health services,” a WHO article, titled ‘COVID-19 disrupting mental health services in most countries,’ read. “Bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. Many people may be facing increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia, and anxiety.”
SLIDE 3: HUMAN CONNECTION
It’s clear that the pandemic has created many challenges in taking care of your mental health, but how has it directly impacted different aspects of our mental health? For one, our social connection has been reduced. According to Psychology Today, what sort of human interactions we have are a major factor in where we fall on the mental health spectrum.
“We are profoundly social creatures,” the article read. “At the root of all of our desires is a need to be loved and to belong. A sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs and it impacts our mental health, physical health, and longevity… People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them.”
So with that idea in mind, think about how much quarantine impacted you on a social level. When you’re isolated from friends and family you rely on for social connection, it’s a lot harder to have quality mental health. East students surveyed about this would agree for the most part. When asked about how they connected with friends and family during lockdown, 79% of students said that the majority of their interactions were with the people they lived with, and 54% said they called, Zoomed, facetimed, or used some other method of video streaming to see their friends and family.
And what about Zoom? Does that help us find the social connections we crave? As many have learned, it’s just not the same, and there’s actual facts to support that, according to the Cleveland Clinic. “Our brain is trying to navigate technology while we process what we’re seeing and hearing, but our brain is also trying to process social interaction through a screen,” the article said. “That’s [the problem] because most of the nonverbal cues that we used to rely on during in-person conversations – like eye contact, body language, or an indication that someone is about to speak – can’t be easily picked up over video.”
By definition, this is trying to multitask, and regardless of how hard anyone tries, humans are not capable of multitasking. And that, right there, is why we all feel so drained after a day of sitting around in front of our computers at zoom school – when someone is already mentally exhausted from limited social contact, it’s hard to focus on so many other aspects, like technology, nonverbal cues, and social interactions in general.
SLIDE 4: HOW SLOWING DOWN IMPACTS MENTAL HEALTH
One of the upsides of the pandemic was more time to slow down. A number of East students really appreciated that time as well. “I was having a really hard time at the end of last school year pre-pandemic, and having time to slow down and center myself was very helpful,” sophomore Jane Jewell said. “I feel like I got to know myself a lot better during the pandemic, and I would like to keep that up in the future.”
Senior Stella Criswell agrees with this sentiment. “[Quarantine] taught me the value of slowing down and appreciating everyone around me,” she said. “I’m grateful for the time it gave me with my family before transitioning to college life.”
And according to the Here To Help Foundation, a Canadian organization that helps provide information and support in regards to mental health and substance abuse, slowing down has been proven to be beneficial to mental health. “When we do not take time to slow down, stresses can add up until we feel too overwhelmed to do anything,” the article read. “When we relax, it is easier to see problems and solutions clearly. It is easier to manage difficult feelings, and it is easier to see the good sides of things. It is easier to focus on what is happening now instead of worrying about the past or future.”
Whether that means having a 10 minute brain break in the middle of a study session, or taking a mental health day to relax is up to you. Regardless of what you decide you need for your mental health, it’s important to slow down sometimes in order to keep up with everything going on, as backwards as that may sound.
SLIDE 5: WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
The pandemic has been a massive global disaster, and that should not be diminished. But it has also forced us to come together as a community, as a country, and as humanity, and we’ve all learned a lot from that experience. Not all bad has come out of it, and I think that’s an important aspect to highlight – regardless of what we experience, there will always be good and bad aspects to it, both with mental health and other aspects of life, and the best way to make it through that is to not forget about the silver lining of a situation.
SLIDE 6: TAKING CARE OF YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
So if your mental health is not where you want it to be, what can you do about it? There’s a lot of places to start, the first, and maybe one of the most important of which is just talking to someone you trust. “You can go to your family, whomever that might be, your friends, your teachers at school, there’s lots of mental health professionals at school, but even just your teacher, as an adult to talk to,” East Psychologist Cassie Dietrich said. “I always think it’s about finding those around you to help you, because they can lead you to a good resource on the internet, or a good place to go, or even therapy.”
“There [are] a lot of different things you can try [from there], or even just talking through things can be helpful without even necessarily using a coping skill,” she continued. “Once you even just express it, it’s off your chest, and you’re not alone. Sometimes you feel like you’re in a vacuum, like it’s only happening to you, and that is not the case.” Just knowing that can be a big help in being able to move forward.
Another strategy Dietrich suggested was goal setting. If there’s something you know is causing you problems, learning how to limit that can be extremely beneficial, depending on how you do it. “It’s [about] taking small steps, because if you decide ‘I’m just not gonna use my phone at all tonight,’ that’s probably not realistic,” Dietrich said. “For me, my goal for the news was ‘I’m only going to watch the national news and the local news and then I’m going to be done with the news.’ … That was too long for me, so my goal I set for myself was just an hour of news. That’s how I did it and then I can’t watch it anymore or it’s just too much… Setting those little goals for yourself and then finding what you can fill that time with instead [is important].”
SLIDE 7: MORE RESOURCES ON MENTAL HEALTH
With all of the information provided above, mental health can seem like an overwhelming topic, something that’s hard to do anything about. It certainly isn’t easy, or simple, but it’s possible to get to where you want to be so you can be at your best.
A lot of the statistics provided are not encouraging either. However, mental health is not defined by statistics – it’s an individual thing, different for every single person on this planet. And because there are no two people exactly alike, there’s no one right way to find help if you need it. I’ve provided a list of different places to start, and you can always ask for help from friends, family, and other trusted individuals in your life, but if what any of them suggest isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to try something else. As cheesy as it may sound, the idea that ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’ is extremely true.
And in the meantime, you are not alone in your problems. Everyone is fighting their own battles, regardless of whether or not you can see them. Keep your head up, do what’s best for you, and you can make it to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Links posted on slide:
UK Mental Health Foundation: How to look after your mental health
Healthdirect Australia: Good mental health
Here to Help (Canada): Tips for good mental health
Healthline: 7 Ways to Slow Down and Be a Better Human
Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials: Is Taking a Mental Health Day Actually Good for You?
National Institute of Mental Health: Help for Mental Illnesses