COVID should be a mental health reckoning, but … what if it’s not?

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I think sometimes about what would have happened if COVID took place at the same time in 2017, which is entirely possible because life, and global pandemics, are often random as hell. If this was three years ago, I would have been newly-divorced, living by myself for the first time in seven years, and in the process of losing most of my 20s/30s friend circle. As you might imagine, that was a depressing time anyway — I broadly got through it — and I think if you had added government-mandated social isolation into that mix, it would have been pretty bad.

I get knocked all the time by people for being too negative or discussing mental health or whatever else. I am mostly fine with it. Some days I wish I had bigger followings that seemed to care more about what I do, but the reality is, life is not easy for everyone, Instagram filters be damned. People do get depressed, and you do evolve and lose friends in your 30s, and mental health is an actual concern — so much so that I’ve even done a couple of podcast episodes on it, i.e. here and here.

Because human beings need connection (“social animals”) and generally do not like isolation, the common belief about post-COVID or during-COVID is that we’d see an explosion in mental health issues, both reported and just within our communities and friend circles. You may have seen the well-reported story of the nurse in NYC who committed suicide. It would seem logical that we’d get more and more stories like that, because this period is a mix of isolation, lack of touch, uncertainty, etc. It’s very confusing to a lot of people, and confusion + lack of income + lack of social network can do terrible things to mental health. (Also: people with drinking or other addictions right now are in a terrible spot, but I will gloss over that for now.)

But what if it’s NOT a mental health reckoning?

I got this from a Mark Manson newsletter on “Why People Believe Crazy Things.” Good newsletter and he seems like an interesting dude, but I once applied to work with him and heard nothing back, so I kinda resent him from afar because of my own mental health issues. Onward!

Manson himself wrote one of those “these take 20 minutes to read” articles about mental health about 45 days ago. He predicted, as most logical people are saying, that mental health is about go off a cliff.

But now, in this newsletter, he points at two studies.

The first one studied people’s feelings of social connection and relatedness under quarantine. After a few weeks, the vast majority of people reported little to no drop in feelings of social connectedness, including extraverts. And while many people reported increased feelings of lethargy, overall life satisfaction was barely affected.

The second study looked at a group of Dutch students and found that mental health problems did not increase over a measured three-week period in March and April. In fact, early on, mental health problems slightly decreased.

OK, so that seems like good news, broadly.

Why might this be the case?

A couple of things jump out:

  • Maybe we are underestimating the resiliency of the human brain: That would be cool, right?
  • Maybe these studies were conducted too early into the COVID process, and if it drags on, the results will be worse: That’s also something to consider.
  • Maybe people secretly like this: I don’t have kids (a source of depression often, if we’re on that topic) and maybe it would feel/look different with kids, but a lot of people run the rat race 50–52 weeks/year with no break except for Netflix, a few walks with the dog, and maybe some bouts of intimacy. (Yes, I called them “bouts.”) This is a slow-down period. I’ve seen the hucksters on LinkedIn saying they are still working 90-hour weeks, and maybe that’s true. At most I work 15 hours-20 hours/week. Now, I’m not on any W-2, but still, this is a slowdown. Stop and enjoy life as best you can. The environment even seems to be getting better! So maybe, while there is less social connection, overall quality of life — friends, family, Zoom/Skype, walks with the dog, a clearer sky — seems to be improving, and thus mental health results will not be as bad as we might think.
  • Maybe we’re just studying and surveying the wrong people: This is, sadly, also a possibility. When you are over 30 and not married/divorced/live by yourself/are not a conventional corporate success, people tend to forget about you. Friends check in periodically almost as a box check, and you’re not really desired for work or political surveys or studies. Loneliness extrapolates loneliness, in many cases. We just don’t discuss that openly.

So will there be a mental health crisis?

Well, we already had and have a mental health crisis, so yes. It will still be there. Will it worsen? That varies by individual and their situation and their perception of fear and income needs and everything else. There are millions of micro-inputs to this situation at your own personal level.

So what can we do as people aside other human beings? Just try to be there. Smile. Nod. Call. Text. Reach out. Be human. The world is weird, but here’s the dirty little secret: the world is always weird, and you are guaranteed nothing. That’s what it takes a while to figure out, unfortunately. Even when beaches and bars and malls and everything is “re-opened,” guess what? Not to be morbid, but a drunk driver could still plow into you. There’s no guarantees and life changes on what seems to be the smallest possible moment at the time.

So really, the best thing you can do for people now is the same best thing as any other time: reach out, keep ’em in your thoughts, call ’em, text ’em, and just try your best, within your other responsibilities and goals, to be there for others. That’s it.

As for the numbers on mental health, it will be borne out over time.

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