Written by Kristin Beckman
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year, the focus on mental health is especially poignant. During the month of May, the National Alliance on Mental Illness works to fight stigmas surrounding mental health and is emphasizing the message: You are Not Alone.
While the world has been dealing with the global COVID-19 pandemic during the past year, many people have also been struggling with a related health crisis that has been dubbed “The Silent Pandemic.” The physical consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic have spurred the world into action trying to prevent the spread of the virus and treat those who contract it. However, efforts like social distancing and remote work, while great for keeping people physically healthy, often have the unintended consequence of making people feel isolated, which can negatively impact mental health and wellness.
Even before COVID-19, nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults experienced some form of mental illness, and despite how common mental health concerns, more than half of people dealing with a mental illness do not seek help for their disorders, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Often this is because they are embarrassed, fear what others will think of them, or worry that they might lose their job.
The physical distancing and upheaval necessitated by COVID-19, as well as the stress of a large-scale disaster, have exacerbated mental health and wellness challenges, according to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association early in the pandemic. The article predicted the likelihood of substantial increases in anxiety and depression, substance abuse, loneliness, and domestic violence stemming from social distancing and other virus mitigation efforts.
More recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed those early concerns. It found the number of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent, while the percentage of individuals reporting unmet mental health care needs increasing from 9.2 percent to 11.7 percent between August 2020 and February 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For those suffering from serious mental health issues, seeking help is the most important first step. However, everyone can benefit from taking steps to nurture their own mental health and promote overall wellness. Following are a few ideas you can try to re-center your focus, lift your mood, and improve your mental wellbeing.
1. Although social distancing can make it difficult, find ways to connect with other people. Talking with friends, neighbors, and loved ones about your feelings and concerns can relieve stress and promote resilience. If an in-person connection isn’t possible, make use of all of the technology available to connect today, including video conferencing, social media, email, and even good old-fashioned telephone calls.
2. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety and can even help people manage chronic pain. Mindful meditation can be as simple as sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and bringing your mind’s attention to the present several times a day. There are guided mediation programs available online or through smartphone applications that you can download to remind you to meditate and help you do it.
3. Journaling is a simple tool that allows you to deal with overwhelming emotions in a way that helps manage anxiety, reduce stress and cope with depression. Notably, writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you prioritize and process problems, fears and, concerns, keep track of symptoms and triggers and train your mind to shift negative thinking to positive self-talk. There are no rules when it comes to journaling, experts say. Simply write or type whatever comes to your mind, but make sure to read back every now and then to remind yourself how you have persevered and overcome challenges.
4. Exercise. Your physical health and mental health are connected. Exercise can reduce feelings of stress and depression and improve your mood thanks in part to the release of chemicals called endorphins that trigger positive feelings. Thirty minutes of exercise of moderate intensity, such as brisk walking for 3 days a week, is sufficient to produce a variety of health benefits. Even better, these 30 minutes need not be continuous; three 10-minute walks are believed to be as useful as one 30-minute walk in reducing stress, according to the National Institutes of Health.
5. Sleep. Is not getting enough sleep a cause or a symptom of mental health disorders? The answer isn’t clear, but researchers do know that adequate sleep is crucial not only for mood but also for having the energy to cope with day-to-day stress effectively. Adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, but studies indicate at least one-third of adults sleep less than 7 hours per night. “The brain basis of a mutual relationship between sleep and mental health is not yet completely understood. But neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night's sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep deprivation sets the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability,” according to Harvard Medical School.
This May, take the time to take care of your mental wellbeing by trying one or more of the ideas listed above. Remember, you are not alone even during a time of physical distancing!