It’s been eight months since the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in the United States, and since then, we’ve witnessed a bloom of pandemic, upending nearly everything in our lives.
As the United States struggles still to implement clear and cohesive guidelines locally and state-wide — with no federal mandates in place — in order to contain and prevent further spread of the virus, it’s become more apparent every day how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and brown people and how it’s negatively affected our collective mental health.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been misled by information disseminated by the President, members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and political appointees at public health agencies. In September alone, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published guidelines advising people not to get tested for COVID-19 if they weren’t exhibiting symptoms of the virus, although public health experts and CDC scientists objected; President Trump contradicted the testimony from the CDC’s director on the importance of wearing masks and the timeline for vaccines; and Michael R. Caputo, a spokesman on the cabinet department overseeing the U.S.’s coronavirus response, claimed government scientists were committing sedition in an outburst on Facebook.
It’s a lot. Naturally, the pandemic has taken a toll on our well-being, and the lack of clarity and direction — backed by science — to combat the virus is not helping people in the U.S. navigate the pandemic.
How Inconsistent Information on the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Impacted Our Mental Health
“For many people, this type of uncertainty contributes to increased stress, anxiety, and general worry. It can also contribute to depression as when people do not have a clear understanding and things feel out of control with little clear guidance, it leaves many people feeling unsure of what to do in order to safely manage their health and safety for themselves and their loved ones,” Jill Daino, LCSW-R, said. In addition to an increase in stress and anxiety, Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S, said the ongoing uncertainty can lead to frustration, anger, and irritability for some.
“Unfortunately, the back and forth continues to add to the sense of uncertainty and confusion while also adding a layer of not knowing what information to trust,” Daino explained. The stress, anxiety, and confusion one would expect to experience during a pandemic have become heightened as we navigate these additional informational, or disinformational, challenges.
“Put simply, in times of crisis, people need a leader,” O’Neill said. They also need accurate information about what is happening and guidance on how they should respond. “We cannot make informed risk-management decisions if we don’t have access to all relevant information. Thus, I think not having a clear unified response to the crisis exacerbated stress, worry, fear, and anxiety and it served to create divisiveness around a public health emergency,” according to O’Neill.
How to Improve Your Mental Health Moving Forward
The constant changes in guidelines at all levels are both frustrating and confusing, which is why O’Neill recommends filtering your sources of information, whether it be from social media, family and friends, or news channels. “Be aware of the potential partisan spin that some news outlets may put on their information. If something seems uncertain, try to find another source that supports it or disproves it. And last, and most important, listen to experts,” she said.
With a lack of clarity and guidance, Daino said, “We need to focus on the areas we can control while recognizing the areas we cannot control.” This will look different for everyone but the key is to be intentional about taking care of your mental health daily, according to Daino. “Being able to establish routines within our control positively impacts our mental health,” she continued.
Start small: explore new routines and hobbies
Now may not be the time to set extreme goals for yourself, but there are many, easy-to-implement things you can begin doing today to begin improving your mental health.
For example, going on daily walks, consistently talking with friends and family you trust, practicing breathing exercises, reading a book, watching a TV show (or many!), making art —anything that will help you stay connected to yourself and others, Daino said. “It is also important to remember that the help of a licensed therapist is easily accessed through online therapy, which is a safe space to work on mental health concerns,” she continued. We know that for some, therapy may not be an option due to schedules and finances, but there are resources available to help you manage your mental health, and you should know that you are not alone in this process.
As we navigate this pandemic and the continuing catastrophe of not having a nationally implemented response, it’s important to practice grace with ourselves and others as we face these challenges. Let’s be mindful of how we talk about mental health, in order to decrease the stigma surrounding it while ensuring those who need support receive it.
Your mental health may not improve overnight, but limiting the information you consume to reputable sources, creating a routine that makes you feel good — trying to follow it as much as possible, and being gentle with yourself when you do not — as well as allowing yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling is critical to navigating these choppy waters.
Be sure to treat yourself and others with kindness as we enter the fall and winter months of the pandemic, and be sure to reach out to an expert if you feel like you’re in need of more serious and consistent mental health support.