What will COVID-19 mean for our mental health?
For the last six months I’ve lived like an agoraphobic rescue cat. I left my job in September, and as soon as I lost the routine of a full-time job, the depressive episode I battled back for most of 2019 finally sank its claws into me. While I made noise about consulting gigs, most days were spent in my dark, narrow bedroom underneath a heavy, gray Gravity blanket. I cannot say that the blanket demonstrably lessened my generalized anxiety, but I can say that lying beneath it felt like being firmly pressed down into the Earth by a tender giant’s palm.
I was formally diagnosed with anxiety a few years ago. It wasn’t a surprise: as a kid I was petrified to order for myself at McDonald’s, my tiny ribcage puffy with dread for reasons I couldn’t explain. But when my doctor suggested this winter that my symptoms sounded like depression (the sleeping, the disinterest, the hopelessness), I had trouble seeing myself as a Person With Depression. I don’t know why. It felt greedy to claim both conditions, to tell my parents I am anxious and depressed!
At the end of the day it didn’t matter. The medication I take to manage my anxiety is already an anti-depressant. My doctor increased my dosage and scheduled a check-in for a month later. Thanks to global warming and daylight savings, Brooklyn got warm and bright again. I started applying to jobs and buying actual groceries. I stretched out on a beach towel on my building’s dirty roof and read Uncanny Valley under the nascent sunshine. My preferred Presidential candidate ended her campaign, breaking my heart but freeing me from 24/7 digital comms volunteering on Twitter. For a few weeks I felt on the mend, the page turned on my unpaid burnout PTO. I received not one but two job offers that enticed me with new creative challenges, new structure. After six months of eating veggie chips in my bed I wanted to get on the subway and argue about visual assets at a fashionable midtown WeWork.
You already know what happened next. The outbreaks in Asia that my dad kept texting me about made their way across Europe and then to the United States. The President delivered an inept press conference littered with lies and misinformation, and then another, and then another. Spooked young professionals raided my neighborhood grocery store, stuffing frozen beef into their reusable totes. My new company went fully WFH and I met coworkers via webcam, their friendly faces arranged Brady Bunch-style across my screen. I joined the video-conference calls from my bed: the lighting was best there.
I am afraid of getting COVID-19. I become more afraid with every new episode of The Daily, with every colorful graph of infection rates, with every viral photo of hipsters lining up outside Manhattan bars instead of social distancing. Coronavirus can be deadly no matter your age. The response of our government doesn’t comfort me. It’s going to get ugly.
But I’m afraid of my mind too. The pandemic and its resulting panic are surreal—it feels like my anxious, hopeless brain has been turned inside out. I already wake up most mornings with dread and paranoia, only now it’s warranted and shared by everyone else. My psychological rock during unemployment, the Brooklyn public library, has closed its doors. The line between faulty brain chemicals and a national emergency is as good as gone, a meaningless distinction. The world overflows with uncertainty and fear. You’re all living in my anxiety.
The international pandemic we’re facing will threaten our lives and our way of life. Entire companies are shifting their workforces to remote and distributed models with no time to trouble-shoot and strategize. Hundreds of thousands of American will be laid off or furloughed. We will see with sudden brutality the human cost of dismantling the social safety net and allowing corporations to refuse their employees healthcare coverage and paid sick leave. We’re entering a global era of grief, financial fragility, social isolation, misinformation and suffering. The Coronavirus brings with it a second pandemic. It will terrorize our psychological health.
What scares me most immediately, beyond the specter of overrun ICU units and too few respirators, is what’s asked of us now. We have a responsibility to practice social distancing: to forgo events, to cancel travel, to avoid strangers, to keep our hands to ourselves. Social distancing helps slow the spread of COVID-19 so that our medical infrastructure won’t be overrun by too many cases too quickly. Any of us could unwittingly carry the virus and infect someone else. We protect ourselves and each other by staying home.
There’s an ugly personal irony to the timing of this crisis: I’ve been socially isolating for months now, not because I’m an introvert but because I was depressed. I look around my overstuffed, narrow bedroom and imagine living here for days, weeks, months without interruption. Now that my mental health is finally on the mend, I have to stay here in the dark. A jagged little voice I like to call my suicide radio whispers: if Coronavirus doesn’t kill me, this apartment might.
In moments like this, the language barrier between those of us who live with mental illness and those of us who don’t reveals itself. This essay isn’t a cry for help — I know how to manage my mental health even if I don’t have access to self-care methods like going for a run or meeting up with friends. But it’s a reminder that this emergency will impact all of us in different, upsetting ways. There are early reports that Coronavirus and social distancing have led to a rise in domestic violence in China. As schools close around the world, homeless and neglected children may go hungry as they lose access to their one reliable meal of the day. Gig workers struggle to protect themselves as demand for their labor rises but they receive no added health benefits or sick leave.
There is the pandemic, and then there are the ripple pandemics. But if there’s a silver lining, a secret weapon, it’s this. It’s the internet. We can be alone together, checking in and speaking up. Please disinfect your phone, wash your hands and call your friends. I want to hear your voice.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours everyday. For international resources, go here.