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A Post-Pandemic View of Mental Health

An expert shares his hopes for post-pandemic emotional well-being.

Key points

  • The pandemic is affecting our mental health in ways that are not always clear-cut.
  • There is evidence to suggest that our mental health and well-being can be thought of as skills to learn.
  • Meditation for as little as a few minutes a day can have a positive effect on emotional well-being.
Center for Healthy Minds
Source: Center for Healthy Minds

by Dr. Richard J. Davidson

The driving question that launched my career in psychology nearly four decades ago feels especially salient in this moment: Why are some people more resilient to life’s slings and arrows than others?

And what happens when the slings and arrows keep coming and feel all-encompassing? The pandemic has highlighted the urgency of these questions.

More than a year ago, I wrote an open letter to the community that follows my work and the work of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison titled, “COVID-19 and our Common Humanity.” Even in those beginning days of shelter-in-place orders, it was clear that beyond fear of contracting the virus, this experience would also be a worldwide inflection point for emotional well-being.

Now, as we’re navigating through our first Mental Health Awareness Month post-lockdown (in the United States), I feel somber about how this global upheaval has affected our collective mental health, yet also hopeful by what we can do next.

First, let’s take stock. In the U.S., in addition to the devastating and inequitable health consequences of COVID, there has been the psychological ripple from the pandemic. Data from the U.K. and U.S. were recently released on the prevalence of depression during this time period. If you compare the prevalence of depression a few key months before and after lockdowns, you see that the rates are literally doubled in the U.K. and jumped fourfold in the United States.

It’s an interesting paradox that is not well understood. It may well be that because this pandemic is global and virtually every country in the world is suffering, there is a sense of shared humanity that may not occur when the disaster is more localized. Other evidence suggests that for disasters in the United States, in particular, there usually is an increase in the suicide rate. It also demonstrates how much more we have to learn about the nuances of human nature and how the antidotes to stress and supports for resilience may be less clear-cut.

Photo Andrea Migliarini/iStock
Source: Photo Andrea Migliarini/iStock

One example comes from very recent work on the application of our Healthy Minds Program app for public school teachers. We learned that the module specifically focused on purpose was particularly helpful in reminding the teachers why they chose the profession of teaching in the first place, and this seemed to promote resilience in them.

Though these results require more systematic follow-up, they are intriguing. It also supports the notion that mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. Rather, it’s about human flourishing and being our very best selves, and how those wells of well-being are our reserves when the going gets tough.

I’m not saying we all need to be carefree Pollyannas, dismissing real issues. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel sad when it’s appropriate; or fearful or angry when it’s appropriate. It doesn’t mean we don’t express the moral indignation or action toward justice when faced with injustices (including racism) that are prevalent through our culture. Yet it is having a solid baseline to come to—a basic level of “OKedness” as well as ease in finding joy in everyday life.

Another remarkable outcome from this work with public school teachers learning well-being skills is that the average amount of practice per day was a little over five minutes. This is so important, for it shows that even short amounts of practice, when they are engaged with consistently on a daily basis, can have very robust effects. I often remind people that when human beings first evolved on this planet, none of us were brushing our teeth. And yet today virtually everyone on the planet brushes their teeth. This is not part of our genome. We’ve all somehow learned to do this for our personal physical hygiene. We are here considering something important for our personal mental hygiene, and I have the conviction that most people would consider their minds to be even more important than their teeth.

So, where can we all start in our journey toward better mental health? How can we learn from a devastating worldwide event like the pandemic, and emerge as a kinder, wiser, more compassionate world?

The journey begins, like so many journeys, with a small step. Just like being physically in shape means regular exercise, supporting one’s emotional well-being begins with fostering a manageable training program for the mind.

People often ask me what the “best” type of meditation or contemplative practice is for them. After thinking about this over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best meditation for you is the meditation you will actually do.

Just as physical health requires practice, so does mental health. So, whether that’s 30 seconds or 30 minutes, it’s a place to start and is sufficient for you. (You can join me for a live-streamed meditation practice on YouTube Live for World Meditation Day on May 21).

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