shelby rowe howard covid mental health dnt
Pandemic's toll on mental health: 'We're suffering some real stuff'
02:43 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: In a series of essays called “The Distance,” Thomas Lake is telling the stories of Americans in the pandemic. Email if you have a story idea.

CNN  — 

This is just to say I am thinking of you, dear reader, in a time when everything feels breakable. Are you holding it together? I am not. Most days I struggle with grief and rage. I often cover my face with my hands. My fingers keep closing into fists.

Thomas Lake

What is happening to me? To us? Maybe you’re like me: afraid, anxious, nervous, or feeling whatever else you call that paralyzing sensation that radiates from below the ribcage up into your chest. You can’t stop worrying about all you have left to lose. You think you might be losing your mind.

I find myself experiencing this mental-health decline even though I have not fallen gravely ill, or lost my job, or lost my home, or been trapped in a long-term care facility, or endured any of the other major tribulations that currently afflict tens of millions of my fellow Americans. And so I wonder: If the pandemic is this bad for me, how much worse is it for you?

“Everyone’s struggling,” Dr. Erica Martin Richards told me on the phone. She’s a psychiatrist and a medical director at the Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, DC, as well as a professor at Johns Hopkins University. She told me her patients are sicker and more anxious than usual. Research and observation tell her that other Americans are having a very hard time.

“Does that include you?” I asked.

“It does,” she said. And although her physician’s reserve prevented her from saying too much, she admitted that the risk of infection had sometimes made her afraid to go to work.

When this is over we will all need help. We already do now. Some of us will get it. Most will not, whether for lack of time or money or motivation. There are not enough counselors to sift through the layers of mental and emotional wreckage and give us all the attention we need. Any counselor doing the job now will also need treatment, like an Army medic wounded in battle.

There are deficits everywhere, seen and unseen. Deficits of money. Deficits of fruit and vegetables. Deficits of routine medical and dental care. Deficits of education. Deficits of sleep, rest, productivity and lucid concentration. Deficits of love, or human touch. Deficits of eye contact. Deficits of joy, of laughter, of time with friends at the coffee shop or basketball court. Deficits of quiet solitude for overworked parents, of children’s laughter for lonely grandparents. All these unpaid bills will come due: some right away, some a year or a decade from now. One way or another, all of us will pay.

Our weaknesses, weaker. Our minds constantly wandering. Does your imagination go to strange places after breakfast? Before dinner? In the middle of a restless night, your failures and regrets playing back in a high-definition theater of guilt? Maybe that’s just me.

I am thinking of one more deficit, another unmet need. Too many people are grieving the loss of a loved one, unable to hold a proper funeral. Too often this grief is unnoticed. We look away, busy with our own lives, afraid of the mounting horror. At least I do. Let us try now to stare it in the face.

I write this two days after the daily Covid-19 death toll reached 4,462, a new record high, the milestone largely forgotten in the noise of rioting and impeachment. Now stop and imagine with me the final departure of 4,462 souls, more than three per minute. They are lined up like jets on a runway. Every 19 seconds, another one rises up out of sight. Each one was once a little boy or girl, someone who got scared in the night and went looking for a hand to hold. Have you ever walked into a child’s room at night and listened closely to make sure they were still breathing? Nineteen seconds. Here and gone. No visitors in the room.

Now imagine everyone who loved those 4,462 people. What if they could safely gather? You’d need the largest stadium in the world. Every seat would be filled. What if all those people cried at once? Can you imagine the sound?

I know someone who cries in the shower, sometimes quietly, sometimes with full-on convulsive sobs. The wails are muffled by the curtain and the door, and the noise of falling water, but sometimes the sound still escapes. The shower is a good place to cry. She says this cascade of water feels like the right amount of tears.

Another soul, and another, floating up toward God. An astonishing number of departures. Our Covid-19 death toll may reach 500,000 in February. Larger than the population of Atlanta. Imagine that. My favorite city, with everyone gone. Five Points station, deserted. The playground empty at Centennial Olympic Park. Half a million people dead, and the rest of us damaged in ways we don’t yet understand.

One year after the nation’s first confirmed coronavirus infection, there are reasons for optimism. New cases are decreasing. Vaccinations have begun. President Joe Biden has promised 100 million shots in his first 100 days. In the meantime, we must forgive ourselves for doing a little less. It’s OK to soothe yourself with television, Dr. Richards told me. It’s OK not to clean the house today. It’s OK to have breakfast for dinner. It’s OK to not be OK.

There are things we can do to help ourselves and each other. Tell your friends you love them. Tell them your troubles and listen to theirs. Show up for those family Zoom calls, whether or not you feel like it. “There are studies that show the importance of smiling,” Richards said. “The importance of prayer. The importance of exercising.” She regularly does all three.

This will get better. First it may get worse. Keep going. Hold on to someone, or something, if only a thread of hope. Reach out to the lonely, and reach out if you’re alone. We are far apart, but the distance is shrinking. One day we can all be broken together.