During this pandemic, frontline health care providers have put their lives at risk to save others. We have also come to recognize the essential roles of so many other individuals, including bus drivers, grocery store clerks, electric company line workers, building security and maintenance workers, and more. Around the world, billboards and 7PM clapping salutes acknowledge the heroic efforts of all these essential workers. A well-deserved global standing ovation.
This week I had a conversation with a friend who reminded me that when it comes to mental health, we have something similar in terms of essential workers. We have psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals who provide expert care. We also have an army of other essential workers in the community. They are the family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbors of the person with the mental health condition who provide care and support day in and day out. They are everyday heroes who share a playbook of common themes. With the elevated levels of stress and mental health concerns caused by this pandemic, we can all play a part in supporting each other’s mental health by taking a few pages from the playbook of these everyday heroes.
1. Connect. Much has been written about the mental health burden caused by social isolation, in general, and exacerbated by this pandemic. Restrictions on travel and connecting in person have put some individuals at particularly high risk for mental health problems. When mental health conditions strike, people can find themselves alone on a journey that is just as scary as the novel coronavirus. And it gets worse when we layer on the shame that can come with having a mental illness rather than some other health condition that carries no stigma. Connecting – and stay connected – with someone you care about can go a long way in promoting mental health and can be lifesaving for those with mental illness.
2. Be kind. Self-loathing and self-blame is common for individuals who suffer with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders. Why can’t I be normal? I lack willpower. I should feel better. Many of us have a lot of mental noise in our heads these days as well. I should be more productive. I have no excuse for not exercising. I should be eating better. Acting with kindness toward others and ourselves quiets the mental noise and creates the space needed for whatever has to take place to heal and feel better.
3. Be generous. When an individual is sick with fever, we expect and accept their withdrawal. When an individual is preoccupied due to mental health concerns, they are subject to being called self-absorbed and antisocial when they may actually be spending too much time listening to that critical inner voice and incessant self-criticism. Being generous creates connection and communicates that you see the other person as worthy. Each act adds to the experience of social network of caring and fuels a virtuous cycle for mental health and healing.
4. Laugh and play. Intentional efforts to create experiences of joy and pleasure are essential to our mental health always, and especially at times of stress. Whether we are experiencing widespread stress due to something like this pandemic or facing more individualized stress associated with mental disorder, laughing and playing have enormous mental health benefits. The mental health and healing effects of these positive strategies can be mapped in our brains and are essential to developing a repertoire of enhanced coping and resilience.
5. Model self-care. One of the ways that we can all step up as essential workers in supporting each other’s mental health is to take care of ourselves. This is a serious issue in the context of the pandemic. Frontline health providers are burning out when the pandemic surges in their region. Memes of exhausted parents with young children abound. WFH employees are not taking vacation. It has been said that kids don’t always listen, but they observe. The same is true across many relationships. Taking affirmative steps to tend to our own mental health needs is instructive across our communities that are especially stressed these days and is particularly constructive in our relationships with those who are struggling with mental disorders.
I was so moved by my friend’s comments about his experience with mental illness and the role of key people in his life as essential workers in his mental health journey. His single story holds a universal truth not only for individuals with serious mental health conditions but for all of us as we navigate times of increased stress and strife. The other truth that is self-evident from the playbook of these everyday heroes is that connecting, being kind and generous, playing and laughing, and practicing self-care is about showing up not only for others but also for ourselves. Everyday heroes.