The Mental Health Survival Guide to the Pandemic: Threats
Mindless activity, increased alcohol and substance use, loneliness, depression.
Posted Mar 15, 2020 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
In the first part of this series, we reviewed the immediate threats to people's mental health—fear, boredom, and restlessness. If the pandemic and economic downturn persist, watch out for these additional threats.
Filling time with mindless and unproductive activities
Most Americans have developed a bad habit over the past decade or so. We are addicted to our screens and smartphones. Many people have trouble with free moments, even just a few minutes. It’s hard for them to tolerate just being alone with their thoughts. It feels like a waste of time. They pull out their smartphones and launch into another world. A world that is constantly going. A world that allows us to be connected all of the time. We can immediately see what’s happening in the news, or in our emails, or on social media, or in the stock market. We don’t want to miss anything.
The problem is that this electronic world can suck people in and never let them out. And in the end, it doesn’t contribute much, if anything at all, to accomplishing the priorities in our lives—our jobs, our families, our friends, our household chores. These are the things that give our lives meaning and purpose.
Our smartphones don’t contribute much. Sure, they can be a great tool to communicate with each other, or share photos, or check for urgent work emails. Yes, there are certainly some valid and necessary uses of our smartphones. But all too often, they are simply used to fill time or to distract us from our own thoughts.
With too much free time on people’s hands given the current crisis—and the lack of their normal work or school routines—many people will default to this bad habit, and simply spend more time on their smartphones. Alternatively, they may watch a lot more television, much more than they already do. Either of these activities can be great for filling time, but at the end of the day, they can leave people feeling lost, without a sense of meaning and purpose.
Party Time: Alcohol, CBD, marijuana, and other drugs
One of the biggest risks to the health and wellness of Americans is the risk for increased use of alcohol, CBD, marijuana, and other recreational drugs. If people are no longer going to work, either due to work-from-home requirements or layoffs, it can seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to have a drink or two, or maybe some marijuana, to calm down and relax at the end of a day. We are all safe and sound in our homes anyway. Why not? Some may view this time at home as a newfound vacation, or staycation, of sorts. We all like to relax during our staycations.
Others may be worried and stressed in unbelievable ways, panicked about their jobs or their retirement accounts. They may feel that they need something to help get their minds off of all of this bad news. They may have trouble sleeping. They might believe that alcohol or other recreational drugs will help.
There is no doubt that alcohol and other drugs will make people feel better in the short run. That’s why so many people use them. However, if this pandemic persists for a long period of time, or if this economic downturn continues, it’s predictable that some people will develop a problem with alcohol or drug use. These can sometimes be difficult to stop once things go back to normal. For those with an existing alcohol or drug use problem, all of this bad news may certainly make their existing problem even worse.
It’s likely too soon in the pandemic for most people to be feeling the effects of social distancing. We can all go for a few days or even a week or two without much social contact. However, as time goes on, it’s predictable that many people will begin to feel disconnected from the people at work, from their friends, from their families, and even from anonymous crowds at sporting events, shopping malls, or movie theaters. This comes with the risk of feeling lonely.
Some people believe that loneliness is just a state of mind, a mental thing. But in fact, loneliness is increasingly recognized as a risk factor for numerous physical disorders in addition to mental disorders.
There is little doubt that if this pandemic continues for a prolonged period of time in conjunction with an economic downturn, we will begin to see increased rates of clinical depression. All of the factors listed already in this article have been clearly implicated as risk factors for depression—fear, job insecurity or loss, financial insecurity, social isolation, increased drug and alcohol use, increased use of smartphones and screen time, losing a sense of meaning and purpose. We will need to watch for this closely in ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, and our co-workers. There is much that can be done to mitigate these risks. If depression does develop, treatment is available.
What can we do?
The first thing is to be aware of the risks outlined throughout this post. Take an inventory of where you and your loved ones are at on these items. Watch for worrisome patterns emerging. Talk to each other about these issues. Don’t be afraid to discuss these difficult topics. Be kind to each other. Show concern for those who you know are struggling. Let them know it’s normal that they are worried, or stressed, or feeling empty or confused. Also, let them know that you want to help them find a way to deal with all of this.
There is much more to say on the topic of what to do about all of this. This will be the first in a series of articles entitled The Mental Health Survival Guide to the Pandemic.
The next post in this series focuses on having a sense of meaning and purpose in life and its role in navigating this pandemic. Take your own self assessment to see where you're at right now.
Stay tuned for more practical, pragmatic tips on how to deal with these issues and prevent them from occurring in the first place.