It’s A LOT! This is what I’m hearing my clients say more than ever. Six months ago, folks were saying they were bored, sad, lonely, or frustrated. Today they have no more words…just A LOT.
After more than a year in a pandemic and weathering three lockdowns in Ontario, the mental health of kids, teens, adults, and seniors is suffering. There have been almost 25,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in Canada. There are the invisible victims of this pandemic, however, such as deaths that are a result of suicide, a lack of treatment or a delay in treatment and downright loneliness and isolation. While the incidence of suicide actually declined in 2020, this may be in part due to the fact that people were home more and therefore closer to loved ones needing support. While suicide may have decreased, the levels of distress for many more has increased. “We’re all in this together”, is the mantra we have all heard.
As a therapist and coach, many of my clients who have never experienced anxiety or any sort of mood disorder before have suddenly found themselves struggling with feelings of dis-ease, disrupted sleep, racing thoughts, and loss of enjoyment in the things they used to love doing. While not necessarily diagnosable by the DSM-5, they certainly indicate a declining level of wellbeing. Humans are social beings and being locked up for a year has had a profound impact on our collective mental health in the most imperceptible ways. Unfortunately, there has been an increase in some poor coping habits such as an increase in alcohol consumption and drug use.
Those in leadership positions are struggling as they try to support teams who have moved virtually. Never has there been a time in history that a workforce has worked so remotely, and most leaders were not prepared to support a scattered team. Leaders have had to check their level of trust with their team, be creative in how they connect with and through their team, how to keep team members engaged, and how to permit flexibility to support their team as they adapt to changes in their home environment. Leaders have also had to pivot their leadership game by ensuring they take care of themselves in this crisis and “put on their oxygen mask first” so they are better able to help the members of their team. Leaders are expected to be knowledgeable and informed about the constant changes to public health guidelines in order to inform their team. Leaders have had to adapt to lead differently in this virtual world. What used to work in the office, no longer works in the virtual arena. Additionally, many companies became much more fiscally conservative which created increased workload on team members or even layoffs and downsizing. As a leader this can be extremely hard to manage within a highly ambiguous, complex and uncertain future.
Gone are the days of the informal watercooler chat, now replaced with a set time video conferencing call. The increased teleconferencing has increased our risk for body dysmorphic disorder as we stare at ourselves through video calls all day. Visits to plastic surgeons have increased. Where once we were focused on collaborative brainstorming at work, we are now concerned with our wrinkles and frown lines. As if anxiety and loneliness were not enough, we are now struggling with self-love and self-image?
A recent article published in the New York Times discussed how we are all feeling in one word; languishing. I received this article from several friends and have discussed this concept with clients. They all said the same thing, “This describes how I have been feeling.” While it is helpful to finally find a label to describe what is wrong, I also think it’s good to acknowledge that it’s okay to not be okay. We’re not ok. Everything is A LOT right now. We are so past learning how to make sourdough bread, a new instrument or language and video cocktail parties with friends. We are all in this together, slowly receiving one vaccination at a time. Hoping soon that we can hug our friends in person, kiss our grandparents, and watch our kids play freely at the park.
Our mental health has been impacted by the pandemic so deeply that I worry about how long it will take to undo the damage. How long will it take us to feel comfortable in public settings again or stop wondering if there are too many people in the room? Along with my friends, family, and clients, I have also experienced an increase in anxiety symptoms that I never used to have. There is an uneasiness about the world, an uncertainty and lack of control we all feel as we wait for the first signs of recovery.
I have tried to see the ‘gifts of COVID’ as I call them. I have tried to help others see the possibilities amongst all of this grey. This may include spending more time with family, being able to be home more, and less time commuting. Whatever your gift may be, I hope that we take the learning and reflection from this experience and work it into our future once things return to normal. There is nothing like a good crisis to make us take stock of what really matters in life. How we retain what we have learned is the greater challenge.
The best advice I have heard for dealing with the pandemic is the following (and quite common sense as most advice is): eat well, sleep well, exercise, learn something new and do something kind for someone else. As we ride the peaks of the third wave, I will continue to do my best to eat well (albeit a chocolate cupcake in there every once in a while to help me cope), sleep my seven hours a night, exercise with my daughter every day (a gift of COVID!), learn where I can and continue to be kind and do nice things for others…even after the pandemic has ended. If you need more, here are 61 additional tips to take care of yourself while we wait out the end of this pandemic.
May is mental health awareness month. Remember to take care of yourself by doing what you can, with what you have, with where you are at. It is A LOT.
Laura Boyko, MSW RSW, is a registered psychotherapist in private practice, a leadership coach and experienced leader in healthcare, workplace wellbeing and higher education.