Why Are You Still So Miserable?
It’s okay if your mental health is not bouncing back. Here’s why.
At first, Lindsay Pearson felt hopeful. She was getting the Covid-19 vaccine, and case rates around the country were going down. The pandemic was, by many accounts, finally getting under control. Like many of us, Pearson, 23, who lives in Bakersfield, California, has had a miserable year — she has struggled with mental health problems her entire life, but being unable to work as an actress, her main creative and social outlet, made things so much worse. After Pearson got her first jab, she did feel some relief — until, suddenly, she didn’t. Her depression began to bear down on her harder than it had before. “It’s been a downward spiral,” she says. “I can’t help but feel a pervading sense of hopelessness all the time.”
Much of the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic right now is positive — as it should be. More than 62 million Americans have been fully vaccinated against the deadly virus we were all susceptible to one year ago. Although cases are once again rising, one-fifth as many people are dying from Covid-19 as they were in late January, one-third as many are hospitalized, and unemployment claims have fallen to a new pandemic low. Yet even so, many Americans aren’t feeling the relief they expected. In fact, according to the CDC, more Americans were experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression last month than they were in early September, when the pandemic outlook was far grislier. Why is this, what does it mean, and when will our collective pain finally ease up?
First, some reassurance: Mental health professionals say that it’s not at all surprising that people are still struggling. “If you’re at home and going, ‘I don’t feel emotionally fixed with a vaccine,’ or ‘I’m back to work and I don’t feel perfect’ — you shouldn’t. Healing takes time,” says Jessi Gold, MD, a psychiatrist at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. “There’s a lot of healing that we haven’t done. We haven’t really grieved. We haven’t really processed it. I don’t think we’ve really felt all the feelings that need to be felt for the loss of everything.”
It’s not just that we haven’t had time to process everything that has happened — we also haven’t had the opportunity. Many of us have been focused on protecting and caring for our families, paying our bills, and, essentially, just staying alive. When we’re in survival mode, we often push our needs and feelings aside. “We often tend to work through it and bury it,” Gold says, and “what that does is suppress emotions until they become bigger and bigger.” Now, as some of our life-and-death concerns are easing, the time to deal with these feelings and losses has finally arrived.
Plus, we’re all tired and frayed. Sarah Lowe, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Yale School of Public Health who studies the mental health consequences of trauma, says it’s like when you push extra hard to meet a work deadline or study for an important exam. Afterwards, when you can finally relax a bit, you crash and come down with a terrible cold. With the pandemic, “we’ve all been in a bit of a fight or flight mode,” she says, and now “there’s a certain level of exhaustion,” which may bring on new symptoms.
Consider, too, getting professional help. Demand for therapy is high now, so if you can’t find someone immediately, keep trying, Gold says, and put yourself on several wait lists. If you worry that you can’t afford it, this resource discusses no- and low-cost options. And if you are feeling extremely isolated or are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255, or text with a crisis counselor via the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 741741. If you’re worried about a loved one, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers free tips for talking with them and supporting them.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that mental health struggles are not a sign of weakness or lack of resilience. We have experienced a huge, long-lasting, collective trauma, and we all need time to heal. “We don’t always have to feel 100%, and that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with us — that we’re broken, or in disrepair,” Miller says. “What it means is that we’re human.”
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