“Are You Okay?”

Mental health and care during the coronavirus.

Casual businessman taking a break in his home office.

by Angelica Frey

posted on 05-29-2020

The global COVID-19 pandemic presents a public health crisis on both a physical and mental level. As of mid-May 2020, almost 5 million people contracted the virus, and more than 325,000 succumbed to it. The subsequent impact on mental health is another lurking threat. “Nearly half of Americans report that the coronavirus crisis is affecting their mental health,” wrote author and columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times. “A federal disaster-distress hotline for people in crisis received about 20,000 texts in April compared with 1,790 during the same time last year.” The Washington Post calls it “another health crisis, with daily doses of death, isolation and fear generating widespread psychological trauma,” noting that the US mental-health system has been “as vastly underfunded, fragmented, and difficult to access [as] before the pandemic […] and even less prepared to handle this coming surge.”

As hospitals are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to treating coronavirus patients, online platforms have stepped up in kind, both in terms of services helmed by professionals, and in more community-oriented online spaces that are fueled by exchanges among peers. Tools like these – even those not typically associated with health or wellness — have become a lifeline during this lonely, often scary time.

The surprising goodness of social media

Illustration of two people shaking hands with a large smartphone between them.

Image source: Adobe Stock / IKON Images.

Social media has always had a somewhat checkered reputation for its wealth of conspiracy theories, fake news, and unattainable aspirational lifestyles — all things detrimental to one’s mental state. Yet, with quarantine and social distancing forcing people to self-isolate, more and more social media use is as an outlet for deep human connection. UK-based trend-forecasting group Global Web Index reported that, since the outbreak of COVID 19, 70% of consumers are spending more time on their smartphones, and nearly half of them (44%) engage more with social media (with a reported increased usage across platforms). “Social media is having a moment right now,” Meredith Chase, Chief Strategy Officer at Wunderman Thompson, said in her agency’s report,“Social Media Metamorphosis”. While she notes that social media has steadily become more of a promotional tool in recent years, Chase did observe that “now, as people are socially isolated, it is truly serving as a tool for creating real, authentic human connection…people are coming together in a way that we have not seen.”

This change isn’t only in our virtual peer-to-peer interactions; the ways in which we receive care — whether mental or physical — are now almost exclusively online. AA meetings, for example, now take place on Zoom: while the decrease in face-to-face human contact does pose a particular threat to those prone to addiction, “the pandemic has had an unexpectedly positive consequence for AA,” Vice reports. “Lara [the main source of the article] said her meetings have grown, and now involve attendees from all over the world,” the article explains. “We are all moving closer together.”

Social media and mobile tech have also offered affordable mental health tools geared toward individual users rather than groups, and users are reporting positive results. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that online treatment was just as effective as face-to-face treatment for depression, and a 2018 study published in the Journal of Psychological Disorders determined online cognitive behavioral therapy to be “effective, acceptable and practical health care” for cases of major depression, panic, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorders respectively.

Not all of these online tools rely upon traditional psychotherapy. Two of the most popular Headspace and Calm, focus on relaxation techniques and meditation, often at free or discounted rates. The Headspace team also put together a free set of meditations, “Weathering the Storm,” in direct response to the coronavirus crisis. The user response to these offerings has been enormous; in the May issue of MIT Review, Headspace’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, reported a 19-fold increase in people downloading stress-relieving meditations, with a 14-fold jump in downloads of programs designed to ease anxiety.

Others find relief in peer support, by sharing stories or venting or just “talking it out” online. These users have been flocking to platforms like TikTok, which is known for its real, raw uploaded content that leaves the glitzy veneer of Instagram and its ilk behind. Along with the now-ubiquitous dance challenge videos, TikTok has become a haven of informative and candid discussions on mental health, activism (see: rent strike) and racism.

A return to religion and spirituality

Two people sitting on the ground with legs crossed, meditating.

Image source: Adobe Stock / Westend61.

Tragedies and catastrophes can prompt some people to turn toward religion and spiritual practice; while all brick-and-mortar places of worship are closed, interest in religion and spirituality is on the rise, JWT Intelligence reports. Services like Pray.com, a content platform that livestreams religious functions, saw a significant uptick in users after the outbreak of the pandemic. “Business has been booming,” Steve Gatena, Pray’s co-founder and chief executive, told Los Angeles Business Journal. “We’ve seen a massive increase in installs, trial starts and listening minutes across the board.” Writer Tara Isabella Burton, whose upcoming book, Strange Rites, focuses on new forms of spirituality, recently analyzed the return to anachronistic rites among young Christians as partially exacerbated by the pandemic. “As the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns throw the failures of the current social order into stark relief, old forms of religiosity offer a glimpse of the transcendent beyond the present,” she wrote in the New York Times.

Spirituality can also go hand in hand with mental health, and a growing cohort of therapists are adopting aspects of spirituality, religion, or energy work into their practice. “It honors culture and integrates a key spiritual cultural component into the therapy process,” says Christine Gutierrez, LMHC, whose practice combines traditional therapy with a spiritual focus. “More traditional approaches have very often been pulled from an Americanized way of therapy that doesn’t take into [account] the client’s culture and ways of healing. If a client’s culture already has a way of healing and resonates with it – it is imperative as a therapist and guide to incorporate their spirituality in the process.”

Gutierrez and her colleagues see this as true especially among people of color and those from marginalized communities. “What we see today in 2020, is that the cumulative year of having to “survive” and repress our psyches, has created traumas and wounds that are increasingly showing up symptom-wise in the mind,” Shirley Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist who combines psychotherapy, yoga, and energy work within her practice. “Most of my clients are people of color. I am seeing a rise of people of color adamant about reclaiming their healing and stopping certain intergenerational patterns. I see many motivated people in my practice who are wanting to go deep and value the impacts that therapy can have.”

Solace through art

An illustration of a woman sitting down and crying.

Image source: Adobe Stock / Emily Eldridge.

With museums and galleries closed, visual and performing arts have migrated online. On Instagram, the hashtag #isolationcreation has more than 345,000 contributions and was started by Italy-based photographer Jamie Beck, the founder of Ann Street Studio. In isolation, Beck has taken to creating elaborate still-life tableaux and immortalizing her surroundings as they are—and, while the streets of Provence are more photogenic than the average city block, Beck’s approach does demonstrate that art and isolation are not mutually exclusive.

When it comes to mental-health-focused creative work, significant artists like Mari Andrew and Samantha Rothenberg have been tackling the “new normal” through illustrations both relatable and uplifting. “This is outrageous, I can’t go out in public without fearing for my safety,” complains one of the subjects in Rothenberg’s March 13 post, which was made right before social-distancing rules were widely adopted. “Well, Brad, luckily being a woman has uniquely qualified me for that exact situation,” his cohort tells him, exasperated.

Irreverence works very well in portraying the stress and anxieties caused by health concerns and social distancing. So does humor. Italian comic artist Leo Ortolani has his cartoon alter ego engage in snarky dialogues with dogs, politicians, and the coronavirus itself as a way to cope with what is going on around him. French cartoonist Sophie Lambda, the author of the graphic novel Tant Pis pour l’Amour, which details the dynamic of a toxic relationship, compiled what she calls a “confinement notebook.” In one drawing a day, Lambda depicts a cartoon version of herself coming to terms with her new reality. In “number 51,” Lambda’s protagonist acknowledges having gotten used to social distancing, as her cartoon form rests s against an hourglass with a lot of sand remaining. “number 42” shows Lambda’s alter ego swimming amid hordes of pink jellyfish, a nod to news stories that have reported a surge of similar sea life in the Philippines s – just one of many strange natural wonders that have occurred since the outbreak.

As bleak as our current situation might be, artists see it as their mission to document and immortalize what is, indeed, a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime event in our lifetimes, while providing the public with solace alongside acknowledging the weirdness of it all.

Topics: Creativity, COVID-19

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