May ushers in not only the beginning of spring, but month two of shelter-at-home for many of us this year. May is also Mental Health Awareness month and at least in this respect the timing could not be more well-aligned.

Mental health and the ways in which we preserve it, support it, and talk about it have changed dramatically in a time of mass isolation. We’ve been pushed to the brink by a host of both new stressors—as well as old ones that are exacerbated by current conditions. Finding work-life balance, coping with anxiety, being unable to physically connect with our support systems, trying to navigate unprecedented levels of uncertainty in almost every aspect of the world...the list could go on. (If you are feeling bombarded by these feelings and need the help of a professional, please book a consult with one of our therapists.)

While personal mental health is foundational to our persevering during this pandemic, we also have a responsibility to support those in our support network. Isolation affects everyone differently, and many of those we love and care for may be newly vulnerable during this unprecedented time. Physical distance requires us to develop a keener sense of intuition and a new set of tools to provide empathetic support to our family and friends when they need it.

Quarantine and De-stigmatizing Mental Health

One of the few positives to emerge from a collective crisis is that everyone is impacted by it—by no means is it good that we’re all experiencing trauma, but there is benefit to acknowledging shared hardship. Even though we may feel alone, we are not alone in that feeling.

This shared experience brings with it an openness to a new type of dialogue around vulnerability. The pandemic makes questions surrounding mental health and coping mechanisms not only communal and central in our approach to daily life, but also dismisses long standing stigmas attached to this particular facet of health.

All of a sudden, major news outlets are citing psychiatrists on the roles of optimism and self-care. National governments are developing and circulating comprehensive guides on mental health and well-being. Even the most hardened of social scientists, economists (!!), are delving into the qualitative implications of isolation on the human condition.

The publicity of this discourse means that concerns about maintaining (or achieving) good mental health are at the top of everyone’s minds. The recognition of mental health as a shared challenge also means that it becomes easier to talk about—and not just with practitioners or experts, but with one another.

Developing A New Attentiveness: Who Is in Need of Support

Beyond the anecdotal feelings of isolation and anxiety, shelter-at-home practices can have long reaching consequences for mental health. Quarantine conditions have been correlated with increased risks of depression and PTSD—even three years after the isolation takes place. Even the use of digital tools to connect with our support system don’t seem to be mitigating the effects of isolation. IPSOS recently published survey results that show an increased use of digital connection services (and an increased sense of community) alongside an increased sense of loneliness.

The long term mental health stakes are high. Just as our current conditions require a greater degree of introspection and attention to our own emotional state, the exact same can be said about the type of introspection required to support those around us. Each of us needs a different type of mental or emotional support to get through this time—and simply because someone isn't asking for help, or is always the image of strength, doesn't mean they don't need someone to check in on them.

Many of the people who aren’t asking for help may, in fact, be struggling the most. So, how can we best support our support network?

First, be proactive.

Don’t wait for someone to ask for help or bare their soul. Many people, and particularly those who are extroverted or used to occupying a role associated with dependability or strength, will most likely not open up about mental or emotional struggles if you stick to generic conversations about the weather or how they occupied their day.

Recognize that you might have to take the first step in terms of checking in on their mental health status. Don’t make assumptions on pre-quarantine demeanor that all-is-ok if you haven’t heard from people.

Second, assess and be empathetic.

This isn’t to say you have a green light to be obtrusive into the lives of others, but take a thoughtful account of the circumstances that people in your network suddenly find themselves in and exercise empathy. Everyone’s routines have been upended for the time being, and new stressors and challenges arise. Be attuned to emotional and behavioral signals that result from these major disruptions.

Do a mental assessment of your support system: Are there individuals who have gone MIA since shelter-at-home was instituted? Are there people in your network suddenly thrown into a “high risk” group? What about those who shared mental health struggles with you in the past?

Now is the time to check in with this group. Take special care to connect and follow up with people in the health professions, frontline workers, or those who have recently lost their jobs. Be attuned to shifts in personality traits. Sure, some introverts may be enjoying time alone, and some extroverts may be itching to flee their apartment and throw a block party. But if the most gregarious and outgoing person in your network has started to skip your weekly friend meet-up? Check in independently to make sure all is well.

Also, don’t confuse physical circumstance for mental well-being. Partner-abuse (whether physical or emotional) knows no class, race, or geographical bounds. Pay attention to friends showing signs of undue strain or trauma. Likewise, don’t assume all partnered-couples or roommate-situated friends must be socially and mentally well because they have company to spend time with. Be cognizant of the experience and situational stressors of others, and then take the conversation from there.

Third, be open and non-judgmental.

Once you’ve started the conversation, be cognizant that different personalities will have different communication styles and emotive signals in terms of what needing help looks like. A lot of the time, the best thing you can do is serve as a sounding board. And if the individual in question opens up about needing more help than you’re able to give, be there to assist them in finding the help that they need.

Finally, remind yourself that you aren’t solely responsible for any one else’s emotional well-being. What you can do though is serve as a lifeline and help that individual get the connection and support that they need to thrive.

Support Your Supports: How to Be There When You Can’t Be There

Checking in and being there for others is easier said than done when you cannot leave your house. So how can you be an effective support to your people under these conditions?

Tweak the way you communicate.

Now is not the time for simple pleasantries. Cursory check-ins and video chats premised on “How are you doing?” are not doing the trick for most of us. This type of interaction and communication is reliant on a number of social and cultural norms that nearly ‘require’ us to say that “We’re fine” in response. Instead, seek depth.

Ask people what they’re struggling with on a daily basis; how their routine has changed for the better or worse; what they miss doing; what other outlets they’ve found cathartic or comforting at the moment—and then ask why. You don’t need to engage in deep, philosophical debate (unless that’s your jam), but at least open the door for a type of communication that allows for an honest airing of struggles and challenges.

Specific to your work colleagues or the Type-As in your life: Start checking in about things beyond deliverables. Talking about logistics and timelines and projects can fill a lot of time and also seem like an effective way to maintain normalcy—but it can also mask stressors and impede your ability to confront how a completely upended routine impacts productivity, drive, or mental outlook.

Find fitting solutions.

Think of the needs of the individual in question, and then try to figure out the most natural digital “setting” or support for that person’s personality type. Maybe an all-hands-on-deck-twenty-person-costume zoom party is just what’s needed for your hyper-extroverted friend who is craving lots of social contact. On the other hand, perhaps simply keeping a google hangout window open during a binge-watching fest with your reserved, homebody of a buddy is what’s called for. What matters here is the appropriateness of the connective medium.

Remember: It’s not your role (or goal) to provide a constant stream of digital therapy sessions (that’s ours!). It’s your job to help support people in your network when they’re feeling vulnerable. Oftentimes, it’s simply being present in the way they need it, when they need it.

Institute new habits.

Once you’ve found a form of communication and support that works for you and your crew, make it a regular thing. If there was ever a time to create new habits or change up a routine, it’s now!

Difficult and substantive conversations—as well as our being in a position to even broach them—tend not to happen without a fair amount of background and investment on the part of its participants. (Anyone ever had a major breakthrough in their first...or fifth... therapy session?) Create habits and settings where you’re connecting regularly, and the heavier stuff will follow (if need be).

Maybe a daily check-in with mom works best. Perhaps you and your work-spouse keep a video chat open throughout the day and pretend you’re working at your “office” together. Your best friend from college loves cooking? Then do dinner prep “together” one day a week.

Try and figure out ways to cultivate the conditions for conversations to happen naturally. You know, like in the real world.

Our responsibility

The way in which we approach the topic of mental health during pandemic conditions has far reaching consequences. As individuals, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to those in our support networks to navigate conversations and solutions to mental health needs.

We need to recognize that even as the stigma of mental health (and asking for help) has lessened significantly over the past few decades, many people still don’t know when and how they should access help. In a time of isolation, we can be one another’s most effective and readily available mental health resources.

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If you or someone you know is seeking mental health care, you can reach out to our Care Coordination team at [email protected] or by phone at (415) 202-5159.

If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency or crisis and needs immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Additional resources can be found here.