The last several months have placed a significant strain on people’s individual and collective mental health. However, mental health professionals stress that it is paramount we do not think of the toll the pandemic has taken on our mental health in isolation. Not only has the pandemic shutdown taken a toll on our mental health, but several coinciding crises have also unearthed long-standing problems in our major institutions and cultural constructs that have gone unaddressed for far too long. Darlene Sampson, Ph.D., LCSW, and Equity Specialist Coordinator in the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, notes that many are using the language of “social determinants” to explain why the results of the pandemic shutdown have been what they are. These social determinants are the calamity of factors such as access to resources like health care, education, transportation, etc. which can be used to predict health outcomes. She says the factors which have caused the shutdown to be so devastating, disproportionately so in low-income black and brown communities, should best be understood as “social ills.”
Collectively, we have allowed corrosive elements in our society like poor housing, poor education, and restricted access to health care to go unaddressed for decades on end. She says these “interlocking circles of oppression” must be thought of comprehensively in order to understand why this period has hit us so hard. Jason Shankle, MA, LPCC, CCBT, CFM, CAP, CMIT, ATP and Founder/Director of Inner Self and Wisdom, LLC, notes that what we may be experiencing is a set of “generational curses” coming to their natural conclusion. He suggests that thanks to the pandemic, we have finally reached a breaking point in allowing these social ills to continue to break down our society. As he put it, “silence, and negligence and ignoring, is the sugar to the cancerous toxicity that bleeds into the community, that bleeds into society and it makes healing so stagnant.”
Shankle suggests this pandemic has presented an opportunity for a “great pause.” The prolonged shutdown has created an unusual opportunity for stillness in the lives of many Americans in comparison to the rapid pace at which they typically perform their day to day duties. The consequences of experiencing this forced suspension of usual life may be both a blessing and a curse. Negative social behaviors like domestic violence and drug abuse are on the rise, while at the same time, some people feel that they’ve been blessed with the time needed to take care of often neglected areas of their life. One of the more interesting facets of the shutdown has been how radically dissimilar people’s experience with the shutdown has been. Some have found time for activities that ground them like gardening and yoga, while others have been peppered with paperwork or found themselves fighting off financial calamity.
However, as Macie Dominique, a school psychologist at Cherry Creek’s Overland High School, notes, this period of social disruption can be particularly difficult for teens. Teenagers are especially reliant on their typical social structure to maintain their mental health. Felicidad X. Fraser-Solak, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and National Association of Social Workers Colorado Chapter President says these difficult times can trigger emotional responses like anxiety and depression. She says she has observed an increase in inappropriate behavioral responses from many young people as the shutdown lingers on. With normal social activities almost unilaterally halted, it can be hard for teens to bear the mental strain brought along by isolation. She says the teens she worked with during the previous quarter are “really feeling the social aspect of it. I had a lot of suicidal statements made, and self-harm statements made, because ‘I can’t see my friends’ and ‘I can’t talk to my friends’ and ‘we can’t go do the normal things we do to blow off steam or to cheer ourselves up and have more positive mental health.’ So I think it’s just kind of depressed everybody.” Mental health professionals suggest it is best not to write off teens’ feelings during these times. It can become easy to see teens’ concerns as exaggerated, but it is critical that children feel supported and validated during these times. It is important for teens to understand that they are not wrong for having a difficult time sustaining positive mental health during the shutdown. Acknowledging a sense of common struggle can tamper negative responses that can be triggered when people feel isolated.
One thing parents can do is recognize that their children, in many ways, will reflect their own anxieties. In fact, acknowledging the shared difficulty of life during the shutdown can help to normalize everyone’s mental health experiences. Once parents can better understand the emotions they may be feeling during this time, they can more easily engage in open dialogue with their children about how they are feeling and what can be done to cope.
Jarrett Hurd, a mental health counselor, who has two young children himself, notes that the reaction can vary significantly depending on the child. He notes that his younger daughter, who is not yet in kindergarten, has been quite comfortable with shutdown while his son, who is a bit older and an extrovert, is open about the difficulty he is experiencing through this time. Hurd says he and his son have worked through this by recognizing that they are not alone in finding this time difficult:”I explained to him, you know son, I’m having the same issues, we’re in this together, this is new to all of us so we’re just trying the best we can.”
For Shankle, one of the key elements to navigating this difficult time is engaging in self-care. He says that the idea of taking time to heal oneself is especially important for those in the Black community. In many ways, the intense racial and political happenings which have coincided with the pandemic shutdown, have highlighted just how deep racial disparities in the country run.
While it is important to acknowledge the tragic occurrences, which in many ways have defined this time, it can also be a good practice to maintain a healthy sense of what positives may have occurred due to the upheaval of normalcy. Although this time is unquestionably turbulent, it is undoubtedly unique. Hurd suggests it is important to remember that we may never experience a time like this again. Framing the uniqueness of the moment in positive terms allows for people to see the novelty of the situation as providing the profound potential for new opportunities. Hurd believes that although this period has been disorienting, having the opportunity to break our rudimentary habits may create space for people to pursue activities that typically fall lower on their priority list.
However, after the lockdown ends, there will still be no returning to all of our old norms. First of all, it is still unclear when restrictions will end and how we will be asked to proceed in the meantime. As Dominique noted, she is still unclear about how exactly Cherry Creek School District will roll out post-pandemic procedures. She is also skeptical that once schools open up, children will be able to resume typical social relations, as the health demands of the pandemic may continue to make conventional social interactions problematic. Students will probably not be able to see all of their friends at once and physical distancing requirements will likely hinder physical interactions like hugging, and handshakes.
To prepare for these upcoming realities, Fraser-Solak says it’s key that schools stock up on mental health care professionals that are vetted. By vetted she means mental health professionals who have demonstrated the cultural competence to help students, particularly students of color, without reinforcing harmful white supremacist logic.
Dominique hopes post-pandemic, educational institutions recognize how critical it is for students to have their mental health supported. She believes one of the ways this can be accomplished is by more honestly engaging in social-emotional learning in the classroom. Classroom spaces must also be used for healing and validation if students are to be expected to continue coursework given the current unrest in the country.
In a larger context, Shankle hopes we as a community can think about our mental health in terms of healing instead of in terms of fixing. He says this more holistic approach has a greater potential for long-lasting change than moving to placate a sense of normalcy.
Overall, the pandemic has reminded us to think about our well-being, mental health, and otherwise, as a collective endeavor. Fraser-Solak says that although she’s seen an uptick in the number of people searching for mental health help, she also sees a significant shift towards people embracing our collective consciousness. People, through the multiple crises spawned by the pandemic, have been uniquely able to see how our lives are intertwined and structural injustices anywhere are a threat to our collective security. Fraser-Solak sees the ways in which people are re-learning to cooperate as reminiscent of the village mentality she experienced as a youth growing up in Brooklyn. “In order for us to work collectively, we have to have done our work individually. And for all of that to happen, we have to start looking at if I do this, whatever this action is, how is that going to affect my neighbor? How is that going to affect the lady walking down the street? And I think that’s starting to come back,” said Fraser-Solak.
As Sampson leans on her experience as a seasoned professional to suggest that we should all be cautiously optimistic, she encourages us to zoom out and see the scope of the problem, suggesting that then we will be less likely to claim victory. Many of the apparent breakthroughs of the pandemic still function at the level of symbolism and performance for Sampson, and those surface-level events will not go far in terms of undoing the conditions which triggered so much suffering. She says the real structural change will require overhauling the major systems within the country and she is not sure if we all understand the magnitude of effort it will take to dismantle these oppressive systems. The work of undoing these systems should be tasked to white people and people of color should not experience the additional burden of retooling a racially abusive system.