As states begin to open up, more and more folks will require mental health support. How do I know? As a “former” anorexic, I’ve experienced life under strict, somewhat arbitrary rules. Though anorexics follow self-imposed rules, those rules feel just as uncontrollable as the restrictions we’re experiencing today. And while those rules may seem frustrating at times, they can paradoxically become a source of comfort. When the rules disappear, new-found freedom can become paralyzing rather than emancipating.
Before we return to normal, we ought to consider three critical factors to maintaining our mental health: support networks, expert guidance, and individual perseverance, in that order.
People experiencing mental health difficulties rarely raises their hand to signal their struggles. Instead, it’s often a loved one who notices unhealthy behaviors. In my case, though I knew there was something wrong about being 65 pounds in the fourth grade, my parents were the ones who helped me realize that my mental woes were bigger than we could handle alone. I will never forget the day my dad confronted me about my weight. He told me that he thought I could die. He told me that he didn’t know what to do. He told me that he loved me. In that difficult moment, we made the decision to seek expert guidance on how I could return to a healthier mental space and physical weight.
Access to expert guidance is a critical step to establishing mental health. Though my parents did their best to help me gain weight — my mom was a magician when it came to sneaking avocados and eggs into anything I consumed — adding pounds was only half the battle. We needed expert guidance to address the roots of my overwhelming desire to stay thin. Fortunately, we had access to those resources — therapy, in- and out-patient care, support groups of other preteens addressing similar issues.
That’s why we must keep up efforts to make telehealth an option for Americans seeking mental health support. The regulatory shifts sparked by Covid-19 that have cut red tape around reimbursement for and access to telehealth providers should not end when the pandemic does. It’s true that apps for mental health present a slew of tricky issues from privacy concerns to potential scams, but we must find a way to regulate these providers without stifling access. In the post-pandemic world, millions of Americans will need expert guidance to address whatever mental struggle(s) they are confronting.
Even with a support network and expert guidance, attaining mental health is ultimately a marathon that requires individual effort. I’d be lying if I told you my anorexic tendencies have completely dissipated (hence the “former” at the start of the article). The race I started in the fourth grade against anorexia’s negative influence has continued through today. Only by sharing my struggles, admitting my imperfections, and leaning on others have I been able to maintain progress.
As more Americans come to realize their own mental health struggles, we need to create a culture in which disclosures of such struggles are encouraged. The stigma associated with mental illness lingers like a shadow over too many Amercians who would benefit from bringing their struggles into the light. There’s no space for shaming individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, or any other disorder in times like this (nor at any time).
The costs of not addressing mental health are immense, especially given the preexisting potential for a “social recession.” According to Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. surgeon general in the Obama administration, a social recession is the “fraying of social bonds that further unravel the longer we go without human interaction.” Widespread issues with mental health will not slow this process, which could result in even more “harmful effects on people’s mood, health, ability to work and learn, and sense of community.” It follows that any economic recovery plan must include support for and consideration of mental health.
Many Californians will soon see most restrictions lifted. The return to “normal” from a legal standpoint will not guarantee a return to the status quo mentally. Just as we will need to recover economically, we will also need to recover mentally. Let’s collectively make sure that recovery receives the attention and resources it requires.
If you or loved ones are experiencing serious mental health issues, please take action. Consider calling the California Peer-Run Warm Line (855-845-7415) or the San Francisco Suicide Prevention Line (415-781-0500).
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