Studies are recording rates of mental illness during the pandemic never before seen, with 21 percent of us experiencing clinical levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Of those who report mental health problems, 68 percent say their condition is worsening, with the greatest burden falling on young people who are four times as likely as seniors to show signs of mental illness. Add to this the problem of loneliness which was already skyrocketing before the pandemic, and there doesn’t appear to be much hope without some serious attention to the services people need to cope. Even worse, recent studies show that among those suffering from mental illness, addictions are four times as likely to occur.
There are solutions, but they may be arriving too late for many, especially minorities, people who are gender diverse, and anyone with precarious housing or work. For these individuals, the mental health challenges that confront them are becoming far too common.
The solutions, though, have to be more than individual changes to thoughts and feelings. Looking globally, as Vikram Patel from Harvard and others have, we know it’s time to think about our community’s mental health instead of just our own. Indeed, a healthy, vibrant community that inspires trust and social justice is one where fewer people will experience the social isolation or unwanted stress that pushes people into depression and anxiety.
In practice, this means cushioning the impact of the pandemic by promoting fair housing policies and opportunities for employment and training. That requires government initiatives aimed at helping those whose lives have been disrupted.
Even more, we will need to address the anxiety which has accompanied our collective feelings of unpredictability. The more people feel the rules changing around them, and the less they trust science, the press, and government, the more ill at ease they become and the more at risk they are for both mental health problems or social disruption.
The way out of this situation is not just a little more yoga or offering meditation courses to leaders. I was recently attending a global conversation hosted by the Templeton Foundation, and while inspiring, it felt like the panelists were far too focused on asking people to transform their character, to hold better values, and become more empathetic than they were on changing the conditions around people that put mental health at risk. Of course, individual change is an admirable goal, but naïve at best and potentially harmful at worse. Such a focus ignores the fact that individual transformation is going to take decades, if it occurs at all, while collectively rates of mental illness continue to rise. Instead of individual change, what if we convinced our leaders that it was in their own selfish best interest to:
- Encourage everyone to draw meaning from our collective sacrifice and remind us that our individual recovery from the pandemic relies on our neighbor’s right action (that means vaccinations, tolerance of differences, and some reasonableness when it comes to hearing out the facts, whether about diverse communities being healthier and more economically vibrant places to live, or the need for social benefits like paid sick leave that increases both productivity and health).
- Our successful recovery from the psychological dumpster we’re in also requires new opportunities for individuals to use their talents, to retrain when our economy decarbonizes and green energy replaces industries that were formally powerful economic engines.
- Help people turn to their families, turn off their social media (sometimes), and find more human ways of being in close proximity to one another. That will mean ensuring that we get past social distancing and masking once it’s safe to do so, and ensure those who are vulnerable (like the elderly) are given safe spaces in their communities. It will also mean making it easier for people to advance their education, something we know people are keen to do (my own university has seen a steady increase in enrolments during the pandemic). And we will need to remember that people need the chance to grow emotionally and through their careers.
If these collectivist solutions to individual mental health seem odd given our focus on pharmacological solutions, consider that despite all the medical interventions and psychological self-help tools available, the statistics on mental disorders are only rising. Alone, person-centred solutions will fail. Together, however, we stand a chance.