Mental Health in a COVID World

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The most wonderful time of the year? Not for everyone and certainly not for a lot of people this past year’s holiday season.

Even in ordinary years, the Christmas-New Year holiday season adds stressors to the lives of American adults, one in four of whom struggle with a diagnosable mental health disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The Covid pandemic, combined with a fractured political landscape, has served as threat multipliers.

On top of that, for full-time adult students, like college and graduate school students, the holiday season followed a nine-month wrecking ball to the social interactions that often provided the most indelible school memories.

It all adds up to lingering anxiety and depression for many, particularly those who already suffer from mental health issues, laments Dr. Guy Ilagan, associate professor of counselor education at The Citadel and a licensed professional counselor for 30 years. He notes that the holidays are a time when people particularly feel the loss of those no longer present, particularly those 350,000 taken by the Covid virus. Those feelings may contrast with happy memories with them at previous holidays.

Feeling Blue in a Season of Joy

It is also a time when many compare their blue mood to the usual joy of the season. The contrast itself can deepen the feeling that one is alone. And there is more.

“You have someone with some level of depression and here we are at the holidays with so much less daylight, and then you have what can be compounded feelings of being disconnected from other people,” he said.

Research has shown that sunlight boosts blood levels of serotonin, the “happy hormone,” that helps fend off depression and sadness. The same for social interaction, which has been decimated by Covid and the crimp it has put in many holiday-gathering plans.

Instead of starting the new year by turning the page on the tragic one that just ended, we face a long haul in 2021 as we dig our way out of the pandemic.  Vaccines are slow to be distributed and administered, and the economy still faces a substantial recovery, especially in sectors such as airlines and travel, hospitality, and live entertainment.

The Family Gathering Conundrum

Ilagan says those holiday gatherings offer a mixed bag of pleasure and pain for many individuals. Political divisions, so taut in recent years, can cause conflict and emotional pain when they erupt during holiday celebrations. In the year of Covid, even the decision whether to come together was fraught with strife and political overtones. Each choice had a cost: gathering increases the risk of viral spread and not gathering increases the feeling of isolation or guilt.

He recommends setting boundaries with family members. “What I would counsel people to do is call a truce and be mature about it. Let it go and love each other,” he said.

Fending Off the Holiday Blues

The Mayo Clinic offers 10 suggestions for surviving the holiday blues with mental health in check. Among the highlights are: acknowledge your feelings; reach out to others if you feel lonely; be realistic about this past year’s holiday and recognize that we are not living in a normal year; stick to a budget; and avoid abandoning healthy practices.

Sticking to a budget may be especially important this year as many low-wage workers whose jobs require face-to-face interactions have borne the brunt of an unemployment spike, as well as sickness and even Covid deaths. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell predicts this segment of the workforce will continue to suffer economic damage.

The Graduate Student Dilemma

For younger adults who comprise the graduate school cohort, this must be an especially challenging time. The pandemic has taken a toll on their social lives, sent their courses online, and upended the dating scene.  For others, it may have cost them essential part-time jobs while in school.  Many students, particularly those who are extroverts, are viewing 2020 as a lost year.

With all that, Ilagan says maintaining a measure of the holiday spirit is what will get us all through this, now and the time still ahead. “I have come to understand that we can’t be happy without being connected to other people and in service to other people. So that means right now if there are folks we know who are feeling low, we are going to check on them and see how we can be helpful to them,” he said.

“That can be something as small as sending a text or making a call, or something larger like ensuring that people who don’t have enough food get enough for at least a day.”

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