After nearly a year of navigating safety protocols and social isolation brought upon by the pandemic, many are feeling a massive relief now that inoculations are being rolled out across the country, and the world. Our mental headspace is starting to shift as the doom and gloom, ever so slowly, seems to be clearing. Could there be a light at the end of this dark tunnel?
There seems to be a collective sigh of relief, albeit a tentative one. That’s because, while the pandemic is finally being tackled head-one, that doesn’t mean it’s over yet. We have to be careful about how excited we get. And just like we’ve evolved and adapted over the last year in quarantine, we’ll need to continue doing so during the vaccine rollout. Thankfully, even though it’s the first time such an effort has been undertaken on such a massive scale, there are tools to help with that emotional process.
Committing to Self-Care
When the pandemic was first declared, people were daunted by even the idea of wearing a mask everyday and physically distancing for a few weeks. What they were failing to consider was the mental health aspect of something as monumental as a pandemic. Cynthia Catchings, a psychotherapist and peer consultant with Talkspace, says now, a year in, what we’re capable of enduring seems to have changed drastically.
“I remember in March, April, people were happy to be working from home, they could wear their pajamas, and then by July, August, I started seeing a decline — ‘I’m anxious, depressed, I’m eating too much.’ That’s when I started seeing mental health was affected,” Catchings says. “By December, I was seeing double the amount of clients than I was seeing in March.”
It’s hard not to feel all consumed by the pandemic, which is why people are getting excited at the idea of things slowly starting to change. Catchings says about 80% of her clients have expressed how thrilled they are that vaccination is underway. Yet, in light of the news of the vaccine, many people are vowing to continue on their journey of self-care — from buying special masks to making a commitment to continue to journal everyday.
“I have clients who have said ‘I’m going to get the vaccine, but I’m going to continue taking care of myself.’ I know this is at least the light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve seen hope, we’ve seen a response,’” she says.
A Vaccine Is Not a Cure All so We Can’t Be Reckless
Catchings says therapists have the opportunity to psycho-educated clients. Part of that education is to make sure patients know that getting the vaccine the first time doesn’t mean the end of health protocols — they need both shots. Clients also need to know it won’t offer 100% protection from getting sick, but — even after infection — it is likely to reduce the symptoms or level of severity of the illness. Also, the science is still out as to whether those who have been innoculated can continue to spread COVID to those who have not been vaccinated. The bottom line is: you need to continue taking care of yourself and others.
A big part of taking care of yourself is to create a space at a place, ideally at home, where you feel comfortable and where you can practice some kind of mental health care.
“It’s very simple. If we don’t have the space to meditate, we can be mindful. If we don’t exercise, we can write,” says Catchings. “It could be as simple as putting a few pillows on the floor, some soft lighting and music, something that makes you feel good. That can be your space. That will help keep you from feeling like you have to stay home for another month or a few months. You have a space, you can go there and take care of yourself.”
Compromising for Skeptics
And what about those who are hesitant or skeptical about being vaccinated? Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association, wrote an article for the Hill last year that pointed out people are more likely to do something if they feel like it’s part of a compromise. That means getting the message across to skeptics that a vaccination would help wipe out the virus and, in turn, eventually lift the cumbersome requirements currently in place, like physical distancing and wearing masks.
“There is little doubt that the best biomedical science will help us develop the tools to beat this virus,” he writes. “But once we have the tools, we need to turn to the science of human behavior to help us get people to use them.” Communal sacrifice and collaboration is something we can all be proud of, not something to resist.
Prioritizing Those with Serious Mental Illness
A study published last year emphasized the importance of maximizing the uptake of the vaccines for those living with severe mental illness. It acknowledged that system-level barriers like “access, acceptability, awareness of services, cost, and other practical considerations” may prevent those with mental illness from receiving the vaccine. It suggests that by operating vaccination clinics in addition to providing mental health services can help boost vaccination rates by up to 25%.
Tips on Making It Through
Committing to a self-care practice and creating a sacred space for yourself are two ways to keep your head up during the home stretch. Catchings shared some additional tips on ways we can make it through the last leg of the pandemic:
- Remember that we’ve already made it through the most difficult time, when we didn’t know when there was going to be a vaccine. Now we know one’s available, so we can more easily continue. We have gained strength — we have to keep it.
- Rely on your support system. Just because we’re seeing the response of the vaccine or because we can get it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep communicating with our circle. Check in on others and share how you’re feeling.
- Continue talking to mental health and medical professionals.
- Remember to continue following the protocol. Stay at home but try to find fun activities. Look especially for what you’re passionate about.
While the vaccine rollout certainly gives us reason to be optimistic, let’s not forget that it isn’t a cure-all. We’ve come so far; let’s not go backwards now! Hopefully by keeping these suggestions in mind, you’ll be able to head into the next few months with clear-headed energy. If you’re struggling and looking for someone to trust in, speaking to a licensed therapist can be a great way to move forward.