New Pathways to Mental Health: What the Pandemic Reveals

What will a mentally healthy life require in "The After Times"?

Posted Dec 31, 2020

Mental health issues have become highly visible since the arrival of COVID-19, acknowledged by the media, entertainers, sports stars, and even appearing in rap music. It’s good to see increasing openness about seeking help for depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol problems, and just the debilitating stress of isolation and confinement all mount in the reflection of the pandemic’s toll.

Interestingly, some new research points to features of mental health that will be needed for living in "The After Times," which we'll be heading into. Those findings link with what some have discovered creates greater emotional resiliency: Re-think what personal values make sense, and reflect on what they’re really living for. That's one upside to some people's experiences during "The Plague Year."

And that’s important for mental health. Life will not return to what it was in "The Before Times." As vaccines subdue the virus, much will be permanently altered: the physical workplace, attitudes about career pursuits, views about relationship conflicts and compatibility, how to conduct social life. And more broadly—perhaps most relevant to mental health—will be the increased revisiting of personal life goals and why they matter.

Here are a few emerging themes that link research with people's experiences.

Step Outside Yourself 

For many, the pandemic has awakened a greater sense of impermanence, ephemeralness, about life. It’s no longer just a concept. Suddenly, the lockdown happened, and we were in the midst of changes affecting how we live, work, and socialize.

Moreover, by now nearly everyone knows someone who’s died from COVID-19. Or is just one or two degrees of separation from someone who’s no longer here. Life can change—or end—in a flash. 

Some have responded to this awareness by strengthening their friendships, their family relationships, and by connecting more with others in need, helping with acts of compassion. These actions show an increased awareness that we’re all in this together in this world, in this life. We’re globally interconnected in ways that feel more directly human—our fears, our desires—not just economically or technologically.

One prominent theme emanating here, and underscored by new research, is a link between overall well-being and putting your energies and capacities in the service of something larger than just yourself, larger than just your own needs and desires. Consistent with this is a study from the University of Hong Kong published in Psychological Bulletin. It found that healthy functioning, simply put, grows from doing something good for others. It showed that such “prosocial” behavior, like altruism, compassion, and cooperation, boosts both your physical health and overall well-being.

Another study from the University of Rochester published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that promoting acts of kindness and helping people are good for health and well-being. That is, it found acts of kindness are linked with a sense of personal growth or meaning.

Rethink Your Reason for Being

Of course, many have found that living and working at home puts great stress on their intimate relationship and on how they relate to their children. There’s been speculation if we’re going to see a rise of divorce post-pandemic. One part of this is visible in research from ETH Zurich. It found that interruptions while working intensify stress. And that’s something many people have been living with while having to work and do Zoom conferences with partner and children issues demanding attention. The research was published in Psychoneuroendocrinology 

The upshot for mental health is that many are pausing from the fray to reflect and take stock of what, exactly, they’re doing with their lives, and why. Is it living primarily to increase your financial well-being? Your love relationships? Your legacy on the world? Do they mesh?

In essence, this is a deep reassessment of your values. In my view, that’s a core but largely ignored dimension of mental health. That is, whether your current way of life and the values embedded within it promote, hinder, or distort your sense of why you’re here, in this moment of time, in your short life.  Research from the University of Iowa found that resiliency in the face of change and uncertainty was linked with staying mindful—as mindfulness meditation practice emphasizes—but also related to taking actions that support values that are meaningful to you. "What are they?" you need to ask yourself.

Cultivate Your “Whole Person” Mental Health

Accumulating evidence shows that what we’ve called “mental health” is one interwoven dimension of total health. In fact, “mental health” usually describes mental illness, absent of a clear view of what “health” is. Research shows that all parts of our human organism are shaped by all of our experiences—our emotional history and functioning, certainly, but also our biological inheritance, our diet, exercise, and our values. All are linked.

One example is a study from the University of Otago. It found empirical evidence that getting good-quality sleep, exercising, and eating more raw fruits and vegetables predicts better mental health and well-being. Published in Frontiers in Psychology, that study was focused on young adults but has implications for the life cycle as a whole.

And speaking of the life cycle, a study from Northwestern University found that maintaining positive emotions is linked with less cognitive decline. A nice fringe benefit, one might say.

All of the above indicates the need to rethink and reformulate what true mental health really is, and what supports it in our individual lives and in society, as we gradually enter life in The After Times.