May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
At the beginning of 2020, no one could have predicted where we are now, almost halfway through 2021. We faced the worst public health emergency in a hundred years: the coronavirus pandemic. Physical health and wellbeing were our first priority all year, which was critical for getting the pandemic under control. Citizens around the country made enormous sacrifices and did their best to mitigate the impact of the virus while by following shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines.
But physical health and wellbeing aren’t the only things we worried about last year. The isolation and uncertainty related to almost every aspect of the COVID-19 had mental health professionals – and many members of the general public – concerned about the impact of coronavirus on our mental health and wellbeing. Not the impact of the physical illness caused by the virus on our mental health, but rather, the impact of our response. We were all concerned about the toll social distancing, shelter-in-place orders, and business closings would have on our mental health.
COVID and Mental Health: Looking Back at 2020
They did have an impact – and they took a significant toll on the mental health of our adolescents. Data from informal surveys, peer-reviewed studies, formal polls, and various other sources confirmed our fears: the pandemic – and everything that accompanied it – had an adverse effect on the mental health of millions of people in the U.S.
To learn about the ways the pandemic affected the mental health of adolescents during the height of the pandemic, please read these articles we published over the past year:
Now that it appears we’re past the worst of the pandemic, with the arrival and widespread distribution of the vaccines, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. That means our vigilance for mental health issues in our teens needs to increase, rather than decrease. Issues that appeared during the pandemic can get worse. Issues hiding beneath the surface during the whole year can still appear. Teens who kept a brave face the whole time might reach a point where it all gets to them. If that happens, they need your unconditional support and compassionate understanding.
Tools 2 Thrive Phase 2
There has never been a more appropriate time to raise awareness about mental health – which is the entire purpose of Mental Health Awareness Month. This year – the 71st anniversary of Mental Health Awareness Month – the advocacy group Mental Health America (MHA) will redouble their focus on two their two primary goals from MHAM 2020:
- Sharing their comprehensive, helpful, and informative mental health awareness resource Tools 2 Thrive. On social media, MHA refers to this as #tools2thrive.
- Reaching their ambitious goal of reducing stigma around mental health disorders and mental health treatment by recruiting one million people to take a free mental health screening during the month of May.
If you want to get involved, click this link to download the toolkit and get started posting and sharing the stickers, gifs, posters, and hashtags MHA provides: there’s something there for everyone. Before you do that, though, you can read the rest of this article.
We’ll talk briefly about the stigma around mental health in the U.S., then offer general information on COIVD-related mental health issues relevant in 2020 and 2021, then end with a brief rundown on the basic tools MHA promotes in their Tools 2 Thrive Toolkit.
Ending Mental Health Stigma in the U.S.
It’s important for everyone to recognize there’s no shame in having a mental health problem. We all struggle with mental or emotional issues at some point during our lives, whether those issues are with self-esteem, stress, sadness, loneliness, anger, anxiety, something else, or a combination of all of them.
When you struggle with emotions, it’s always best to talk to someone. We all know that. Talking helps. Getting help for an emotional or mood disorder is no different. It’s advanced talking to someone. It’s talking to someone who’s an expert in helping people with the issue you face. Nothing makes more sense than that. Getting help for a mental health disorder is also no different than getting help with a physical issue: when something goes wrong, you see a doctor. When you find out exactly what’s wrong, you see a specialist.
That’s exactly how mental health treatment works. First, you get a screening. If your screening indicates an underlying mental health issue, then you receive a referral to a specialist. It’s simple. There’s no reason for shame or embarrassment, and there’s no reason to avoid treatment when it’s recommended by a mental health professional.
To read about the prevalence of mental health disorders in the U.S., and the disturbing persistence of what mental health professionals call the treatment gap, please read our article about Mental Health Awareness Month 2020.
Now we’ll address the many ways the coronavirus pandemic affected our mental health last year.
Mental Health and COVID-19
There are scores of reasons COVID-19 increased stress throughout 2020. The people at Mental Health America (MHA) point out the following primary causes of concern. Last year, people were worried about:
- Getting sick
- Their loved ones getting sick
- Unintentionally passing the virus to a vulnerable individual
- Adjusting to life under shelter-in-place orders
- Adjusting to virtual school and work
- Financial hardship
- Not being able to connect with family
- Running out of food, water, and common household supplies
Those concerns were all real, and all valid. MHA offers practical advice about these worries: realize what you can control, and let go of what you can’t. Things they point out that you can control include:
- Your mind and body: you can eat well, get enough sleep, and get plenty of exercise.
- Your environment: you can control who comes and goes in your home, where you go, and the health precaution you take at home and when you go out
- Things you consume: you can control the news you watch and the information you read. Tip – listen to the health experts and take everything else with a grain of salt
We hope that all of you listened to this type of advice and took care of yourself and your loved ones during this trying year. Now that we’re almost at the other side of the pandemic, we have another set of challenges to face that will help us improve our mental health and reinforce our resiliency:
- Adapting after trauma and stress
- Dealing with anger and frustration
- Getting out of thinking traps
- Processing big changes
- Taking time for yourself
- Radical acceptance
The MHS Tools 2 Thrive toolkit includes valuable resource materials on those topics. It’s important for everyone to realize something, as well:
No matter how resilient you are, how mentally strong you are, how emotionally balanced you are, how well you handle stress, and how many practical self-care and stress relieving habits you have in your life, the pandemic affected you.
It’s true, we’ve never met you and therefore cannot diagnose you. But realistically speaking, we think it’s impossible to have lived through these past twelve months and not felt a psychological, emotional, social, and physical impact.
That’s why what we have to say next – in the form of the five tips from MHA – is just as important now as it was last year around the same time.
Mental Health Awareness Month: Tools 2 Thrive
It’s easy to talk about mental health, but it’s not always easy to handle psychological and emotional problems when they arise. As part of Mental Health Awareness Month 2020, the people at Mental Health America created a list of five things that everyone can do to support strong mental health. These five things are:
1. Own the feelings.
The ability to recognize, identify, and talk about your feelings is the first step toward managing the most difficult ones.
2. Find the positive.
The best way to do this is to make a list of the things in life for which you are grateful. Positivity will follow from gratitude – we promise.
3. Connect with others.
As we emerge from this extended period of isolation and social distance, it’s important to reach out to family, friends, and peers and arrange ways to reconnect in person. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a new set of guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated. Please click the link and have a look at those new recommendations and make plans to see the people who matter to you in a way that is safe for your family, their family, and everyone else in our society. Social contact can lift your spirits, and sometimes, seeing a friend after an absence can make all the difference.
4. Eliminate toxic influences.
The pandemic gave you an opportunity to identify the things in your life that are toxic, and remove them from your life, one by one. This includes toxic people, toxic habits, and toxic patterns of thought. That doesn’t have to stop now that the pandemic is coming to a close: in fact, it’s a template for how to manage the toxic influences in your life as you move forward.
5. Create healthy routines.
The COVID lockdown meant most of us had extra time on our hands – time we needed to fill with things that support mental health. You may have done that with food, exercise, sleep habits, and media consumption. Just like with the toxic influences in your life, this doesn’t have to stop now that the pandemic is nearing an end. You can continue to make proactive choices to create routines that support positive mental health, and leave the routines that undermine mental health behind, along with all the things you deemed toxic.
You can join the MHA movement on a personal level by incorporating the #Tools2Thrive into your daily life, and you can join the MHA movement as an advocate by visiting the Mental Health Awareness Website, downloading their citizen media toolkit, and sharing at least one sticker, post, or mental health awareness message every day.
Imagine: if one post you make, one new habit you choose, or one positive conversation you have can ease the suffering on only one person – even if that person is you – then you’re part of the solution.
If you joined the movement last year, let’s keep it up, keep the momentum going, and hold all these valuable lessons close to our hearts as we meet the future with hope, positive energy, and enthusiasm.