The other night while my husband and I were finishing up a movie we were reading through someone’s comments on Facebook who was talking about reopening and how we had to reopen because “isolation hurts people’s mental health”. I proceeded to get pretty fired up because I’m getting really tired of these kinds of discussions. Now before you get red in the face and angrily accuse me of being unsympathetic to the issues around mental health, hear me out.
I studied psychology for 4 years in University, and in fact did the equivalent of a double major in it. I’m not a therapist or psychologist but, I know a bit about the subject. On a personal note I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life as well as situational depression, some OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) , and have known many others who have battled mental health too. I’ve been privileged enough to have some access to mental health services and have good support to get through it.
There have been a lot of discussions recently about how isolation can negatively affect people like being away from support systems, stress, loneliness, grief, and sadness. And those are valid discussions and concerns. It is hard for everyone to be away from their loved ones and there are stressful, difficult, and horribly sad things happening right now in people’s lives.
But where I think the conversation starts to go wrong is when we use the language of mental health & illness, to talk about emotional well-being. Emotional well-being refers to our emotional health and feelings which can include many different things like grief, stress, sadness or “blues”, feelings of general struggle etc. Our emotional well-being is influenced by our environment and can be negatively impacted by a variety of different factors, not to mention a pandemic that threatens many aspects of normal life. Whereas mental-health & illness refer to clinical levels of symptomology, the cause of which cannot be easily determined. This includes mental illnesses such as major depressive disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, anorexia, and schizophrenia to name a few. While emotional-well being is an important part of our overall health and something we should be talking about, it isn’t the same as mental health & illness and I don’t think we should use the terminology interchangeably.
So going back to the comments about how “isolation is hurting people’s mental health” and using this as a reason to reopen, here are some of the reasons I think this conversation isn’t helpful to those with mental illness:
- Leaving the house won’t magically solve the problems of people with mental illness, and for those with anxious disorders (panic attack, anxiety) or OCD, it might actually increase their struggle. Going out into a world full of a potentially life threatening disease will also be terrifying, triggering, and stressful. While it could help some people’s emotional-well being, it won’t necessarily help those with mental illness.
- Life won’t be normal at all, it won’t resemble life before, and this will also be an additional challenge for those already struggling with mental illness.
- We won’t necessarily be able to see our relatives or friends or have gatherings that help us to feel supported, but many will be forced back to work and to interact more with the outside world, another stress for those with mental illness. Not to mention, for many of those people, even if we reopened, they don’t have supportive people in their lives to help them through.
- Many people with mental health challenges also have underlying medical conditions, other health problems, or other factors (i.e. Living in poverty, struggling with substance abuse, homelessness, or chronic pain conditions) that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and reopening will increase this risk.
- For many people struggling with mental illness reopening won’t get rid of their experiences of isolation because they will continue to experience social stigma.
- It’s not a one-size fits all solution for helping those with mental illness. If mental health & illness was that simple to fix, just going outside and seeing people, we would have found the cure ages ago.
- Lastly, reopening won’t be part of a long-term solution for mental health & illness or even emotional-well being because there is likely to be second, or even third waves of this illness that will force society to close down again.
In addition, I think other people are using the language of mental health & illness as a way to justify their demands to get out of the house, not from a real understanding of what people with mental illness are facing or even a genuine desire to help them. Our society loves to politicize mental health & illness, and use the terminology when it’s convenient, but then throws it away when it’s no longer trendy. People never seem to get to the core of the issue which is much more complex and comes down to raw, desperate realities, and the inaction of those with the power to help. What those struggling with mental illness really need to help them is not just to get out of the house but access to free, yes FREE, high quality mental health services and FREE medication. Many mental health services are very busy now as a result of this crisis. A system that was already seriously overburdened is now even more challenged.
What I’m trying to say is: yes, please talk about mental health & illness and how it is impacted by COVID-19. Talk about how people who were struggling are struggling even more now. Tap into your very real and valid experiences of isolation, sadness, anxiety, and try to understand what others are going through. Talk about the differences between emotional well-being and mental health & illness and also how these issues can support one another in each of their battles. But don’t use the terminology of mental health & illness to explain why you feel entitled to get a haircut, go to the mall, or party with your buddy. Instead of fighting to reopen in the name of mental health & illness, demand that everyone have access to FREE mental health services including those struggling with their emotional well-being. Talk about the problems that were already there in our society, that have been brought back to our attention by this crisis, and that are getting worse.
I don’t claim to have all of the answers when it comes to mental health & illness, and I’m probably not saying everything perfectly here either, but I do know that we won’t get to the answers unless we change the ways in which we have these conversations.