Nine long, deadly months into the pandemic, Americans report severe psychic distress. According to a new Gallup survey, Americans’ assessment of our mental health is “worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades.”
But now comes winter and the holidays, a time of special dread. Even in ordinary years, this season turns up the needle on stress. The pandemic winter promises a new layer to our mental anguish. In addition to so much death, the next three months could bring a level of collective grief, anxiety, depression and overall stress that may eclipse all that we’ve experienced so far this terrible year.
We might be as ill prepared for the mental toll of the pandemic as we were for its physical toll. Even before the pandemic, the United States had too few mental health professionals to meet the nation’s needs. The shortage is most dire in rural areas and in urban communities that are home to marginalized groups.
Worse, at the national level, there has not been a real focus on the pandemic’s toll on our mental health – not from the Trump administration and not, so far, from the incoming Biden administration. Last month, the president-elect announced a COVID-19 task force that was widely praised for its deep expertise. None of its members, though, is an expert on mental health.
That’s a big mistake, said Luana Marques, a clinical psychologist who directs Community Psychiatry PRIDE, a program at Massachusetts General Hospital that offers care to underserved populations. She predicted that mental health issues could create a kind of “fourth wave” of the pandemic.
“Once we get the pandemic under control, people are going to come up for air, and they will not be OK,” Marques said. “I think we need a national force to help us guide this and have a coordinated effort toward mental health.”
The coronavirus winter will bring special challenges for our already battered psyches. Then there are the holidays themselves, which create their own well-known difficulties.
In American pop culture, this season is often depicted as a time of effortless cheer, a wonderland of snow and cozy fireplaces and skating in the park. Many people often feel terrible about the holidays because they rarely go as well as they do on TV, and this year, more than ever, the disconnect will be unavoidable – and triggering.
The mental health system is already struggling to keep up. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 40% of U.S. adults reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including experiencing symptoms of mental illness or substance abuse related to the pandemic. The CDC also reported that like COVID-19, mental health conditions were disproportionately affecting marginalized communities.
Because the mental health system will not be able to take care of many people who are in need, the experts I spoke to offered a variety of well-meaning strategies for people to maintain their mental well-being this season: Eat well, sleep well, maintain social connections, spend time outside in the sun and get a lot of exercise.
Advice like this may be helpful to some, but it is also woefully insufficient.
The mental health effects of the pandemic will be dire. For people who’ve lost loved ones, become sick, lost jobs, endured long periods of isolation or have witnessed untold suffering while serving on the front lines, trauma will endure long after the vaccine has rid us of the virus.
Winter is here: We need a real plan to address Americans’ unraveling mental health, and we need it fast.
Farhad Manjoo is a columnist for The New York Times.