Most Americans are struggling with their mental health during the pandemic, but there are a host of solutions to help you reduce symptoms and lead a happier, more controlled life.
Dr. Justin Puder
Psychologist and Content Creator
What changes have you seen in the past couple of years regarding mental health?
Both isolation and loneliness have increased during the pandemic. While quarantine and social distancing have been necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, we are a social species the does very poorly in isolation for extended periods of time. Isolation and loneliness can increase many mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and stress. Additionally, research has found that those who are isolated have an increased risk of premature death up to 50 percent. Aside from isolation and loneliness, many people have lost their typical coping and regulating strategies. People have had to find new ways to manage stress when they were typically used to going to their yoga class, having large family dinners, or going to the theater with friends. These ways that we reset from our weekly stress are critical for mental health balance, and many of us have had them taken away.
What resources do you recommend for young people struggling with mental health, especially during COVID-19?
It’s always been important to have outlets for your emotions, but during the pandemic even more so because change has been so rapid in our daily lives. There are a lot of terrific free mental health apps out there that allow us an opportunity to journal, meditate, and have a moment of reflection and release. Some of my favorites are DiveThru, Calm, and Stop Breathe Think. These apps typically have great information about stress reduction, mental health, and activities available that you can do immediately for your mental well-being. There are also plenty of great mental health professionals on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube who put out daily helpful content for free!
What signs are there to look for in friends or family who may be struggling?
One of the most common signs that a friend or family member may be struggling is not seeing them as much. Withdrawing from the group chat, the Discord, not calling or FaceTiming as much is a big sign that they may be going through a difficulty. You may also notice them being more irritable, increasing their use of substances, or having a more pessimistic outlook. If you notice any changes from their norm, it’s okay to check-in and ask “Hey, how are you doing for real?” Many people don’t need you to fix their circumstances, they just need someone who will take the time to listen and validate their experience.
How can people create a sense of community for themselves in a time where isolation is so common?
The bright side of having a global pandemic in 2020 is that we have the technology to engage with each other on a regular basis. The important thing here is to prioritize quality time to engage. Mindless texting in a group chat may not be as engaging as planning a Zoom trivia meet-up for Thursday nights. Being intentional and creative about our engagement using technology can make the interactions more fulfilling. It’s also more helpful to have a consistent and regularly occurring time to meet with family or friends online than trying to coordinate on-the-fly each week. We are creatures of habit and creating regular, meaningful engagement through FaceTime or Zoom can certainly help us feel less isolated.
What misconceptions are there surrounding mental health? Is there still a stigma?
We have come a long way regarding mental health stigma, but it still certainly exists. The good news is Gen Z tends to have the lowest amount of stigma regarding mental health. Seeing the younger generations talk so openly about their mental health difficulties and be interested in getting help is a great sign of progress.
One of the newer misconceptions I’ve observed is an emphasis on owning a diagnosis and then minimizing or dismissing that there is anything they can do to treat or improve their situation. This is simply not true. Across nearly all mental health diagnoses, there are things we can do to reduce symptoms even outside psychotherapy or medication. It’s great to name the diagnosis you may struggle with, such as “I have anxiety.” It’s another thing to say, “I have anxiety, and this is just how I am and will always be.” Changes in exercise, sleep, nutrition, emotional expression, social interaction, self-talk, and many other areas can have a significant impact on our symptoms. This does not necessarily mean that you will reduce your anxiety down to zero. But bringing any mental health difficulty into a manageable range, where it doesn’t dominate your daily life, is a huge success.