The New Possible is a series of human stories and perspectives on how COVID-19 is challenging and changing our lives and livelihoods. In this installment, we explore how the crisis is shaping mental health.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Daniel relished his commute to and from his job as a call-center manager in Melbourne. Every weekday morning and evening, the train ride between his suburban home and his office in the city afforded him 40 minutes to himself. He usually filled the time with music, podcasts, or books. Sometimes he didn’t do much at all.
Since lockdown began in March, Daniel hasn’t been taking these trips, and he has come to realize that they were more than pleasant breaks in his day. The 42-year-old self-described introvert now sees them as essential to his well-being. “I’ve struggled more with my mental health recently,” he told us. “I have to say there’s been a lot more tension and more fights in our house.”
That house is unusually crowded nowadays. Daniel is working from home. His two daughters, ages five and eight, are homeschooling. His wife, whose hours have been cut, is also there. And Daniel’s father-in-law, who was visiting from Canada when the pandemic’s travel restrictions kicked in, has been stranded with the family in Melbourne ever since.
“I now have zero space,” Daniel told us. “Having two kids was hard, but now that there’s five of us in the house who are home all the time, I basically have no space and no time at all.”
Daniel and his family are among the 2.6 billion people on lockdown worldwide, a situation the World Economic Forum has called “the largest psychological experiment ever.” The United Nations has warned that lockdowns, while necessary, could bring on a global mental-health crisis, with an impact—higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance use—that could last for years.
Mental-health challenges affect as many as one in four people during their lifetimes, according to the World Health Organization. Many countries, such as the United States, have far fewer trained mental-health professionals than they need.
Behind the statistics are countless stories, like Daniel’s, of personal difficulty. Here, we share a few of those stories.
The people we spoke with have been struggling over the past few months on a variety of fronts. On top of dealing with increased stress at home, like Daniel’s, they’re confronting job and income losses that are spurring financial uncertainty and anxieties. They’re also worried about getting sick or seeing family and friends succumb to the virus.
Those who’ve lost loved ones shared their grief, telling us how helpless they felt when they could not join family members and friends at the patients’ bedsides. Few could properly mourn those who died. Maria, in Padua, Italy, lost a family member to COVID-19. Her sadness from not being there when he died and when he was buried defied description. “It’s unbelievable,” she said. “I have no words.”
Parents told us they’re worried about the mental well-being and social development of their children, who have been unable to attend school or spend time with friends. Antonio in Milan, for example, has been homeschooling his two sons, 14 and 17. “I feel especially sorry for my children because socializing is so important for their growth,” he told us. “I am more worried about them than myself.”
For the parents of young children, another concern has arisen: Will they suffer in the long term because they are isolated and don’t fully understand what’s happening? Parag’s son, for instance, celebrated his fifth birthday during lockdown in Pune, India. Parag was frustrated that he couldn’t gather his son’s friends for a proper party—and he’s not sure his son understands why. “Kids are exposed to all this information,” he told us. “It is unnecessarily adding stress to them; they get worried.”
Nearly everyone described life under lockdown as draining and repetitive. They’re tired of being cooped up, and they long to get together with family and friends. Bryan, who lives in an 11-person household in Singapore, had planned to propose to his girlfriend during a trip to Turkey in May. It never happened. “My mental well-being is worse,” he told us. “Every day you’re doing the same things. There’s no excitement. Every day you’re just getting by.”
How people are coping
Many of the people we spoke with talked about the new routines they’ve adopted to stay busy and keep anxiety at bay. They mentioned activities like performing breathing exercises, working out, spending more time with pets, cooking with family, and heading outdoors. Mathias, who recently lost his job working at a museum in Berlin, says walking around town is the best thing he’s done for his well-being. “I feel that these long strolls are keeping me from going into depression,” he told us.
The rise of healthy habits like those are perhaps a silver lining of the crisis, and many people told us that they hope to keep them once we arrive at the next normal. What remains to be seen is whether or not they will help people cope in the long term.
Prachi, a 52-year-old woman in Mumbai, was one of several people we spoke to who started meditating or practicing yoga regularly during the crisis. Every day, she video-calls a group of friends to meditate, and they send each other positive affirmations throughout the day. She describes the routine as “a daily mental energy booster” that fights against the disappointment of things like not getting to see her son graduate from college in person in the U.S.
The people we’ve been talking with around the world say they’ve come to appreciate mental well-being and healthy habits, even in countries like India and Singapore, where, people say, mental health has seldom been discussed openly. Will these changes erode the stigma of mental-health issues and foster greater empathy? The shared experience of the pandemic and the lockdowns may help us identify with each other in new ways.
Jennifer, for example, lives alone in New York City—but she hasn’t felt entirely alone through this crisis. “Knowing that we’re all feeling and going through the same thing,” she said, “helps with my feeling of isolation.”
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Matthew said that the lockdown has strengthened his relationship with his girlfriend, who lives with him. “I understand her patterns better now,” he told us. “I know if she starts doing stuff around the house—wiping the counters or the doorknobs—she’s feeling a bit stir crazy, and it’s time for us to go out for a drive or pick up some food.”
Yet only a handful of people told us that they meet regularly with a therapist, even as suicide-prevention and mental-health hotlines in different countries report record numbers of emergency calls.
Instead, we found many examples of what experts call “comparative suffering,” when people discount their own challenges in light of what others are going through. The wages of Yan, a 34-year-old engineer in Shanghai, have been cut, but she believes that many are worse off. “I feel lucky to have just had a small pay cut,” she told us. “I’ve seen friends get a much worse deal, and some even lose their jobs.”
In the short term, this feeling of gratitude may mask and eventually exacerbate real long-term difficulties if not properly assessed.
It feels to some as if a new possible is arriving. In certain countries, the spread of the virus is slowing, businesses are reopening, and the economic outlook is brightening. But for many people, the journey to mental and emotional renewal may be a halting one: small steps forward, a slip here or there, with the danger of falling. We think this raises three critical questions for leaders.
The first has to do with increasing access to mental-health services. As our colleagues have written, every dollar spent on expanding treatments for common mental disorders yields a four-dollar return in improved health and productivity. Many national and local governments have begun broadening access in recent months, starting with frontline healthcare providers and other high-risk groups. But, given that so many people struggle with mental health, and many more will do so because of this crisis, how can governments and employers increase access to and use of mental-health services?
How can employers, institutions, and governments sustain the changes they made to endure the COVID-19 crisis, even after it ends?
The second question concerns younger generations, especially children. Some of us may end up living under some form of lockdown for six months or longer. For a five-year-old, that is roughly one-tenth of life to date. So how can families, institutions, and society help children readjust? How can they address their long-term mental-health and social-development needs?
Finally, many of these challenges will persist long after the COVID-19 crisis ends. We also know that another pandemic will befall us one day. How can we ensure that the helpful changes made in this moment are sustained? Learning how to support and consistently practice what helps us retain, and re-gain, our mental and emotional vitality can only help us speed future recoveries and build a more resilient global society.
Thanks for reading. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or depression, please contact a crisis help line in your country. If you are a leader who is concerned about mental-health challenges in your organization, please refer to these resources from the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control. There are many excellent actions that employers can take, including examples from: City Mental Health Alliance, One Mind at Work, and Shatterproof.
For more stories about how this crisis is shaping the way we live, work, and feel, please check out The New Possible collection page. Have your own story to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.