Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

The state of mental health in the United States has been deteriorating in both children and adults for many years, and the pandemic has essentially thrown gasoline into that fire.

In addition to a higher incidence of eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide, many of us also experience burnout, loneliness, trouble sleeping, and the ongoing stress of being a caregiver. Others just feel like they are languishing.

These problems were particularly acute for some groups: Seventy percent of unpaid caregivers – either parents with children under the age of 18 or those caring for an adult – reported negative mental health symptoms during the pandemic.

So what can we do to take better care of ourselves when the Delta variant throws a wrench in hopes of returning to normal? This week I asked my colleague Christina Caron, who covers mental health for The Times, a few questions for Our Changing Lives.

What coping mechanisms have people resorted to during this pandemic?

Unfortunately, many people deal with it in an unhealthy way. For example, in June last year, 13 percent of those surveyed by the CDC said they either started or increased drug use to deal with stress or emotions related to the pandemic. And, as my colleague Anahad O’Connor reported earlier this year, a nationwide survey found that one in four adults drank more to manage their stress in the past year.

People also eat stress, stare at screens, and sleep either too much or too little.

As you can imagine, these things are not going to help you feel good about yourself.

What is healthy and effective?

Experts recommend taking regular breaks from your electronic devices, exercising, meditating, eating healthy meals, and getting plenty of sleep. Also, take the time to connect with other people or organizations in your community, even if it’s just online.

How can people tell if their mental health has suffered during the pandemic? What are the tell-tale signs?

It would be hard to find someone who says their mental health has not been affected by the pandemic. But how do you know if you need additional assistance? One of the main indicators is whether the way you feel is affecting the way you live.

Try asking yourself the following:

  • Are you struggling to get through the day or do you feel sad, irritable, or anxious all the time?

  • Have you withdrawn from loved ones or do you argue more often?

  • Have you thought of harming yourself?

  • Has your sleeping or eating behavior changed?

  • Do you use drugs or alcohol to deal with it?

“Everyone has bad days on occasion,” Brit Barkholtz, a licensed independent clinical social worker in St. Paul, Minnesota, told me earlier this year. “But when you have more days than you don’t – and no matter how many friends you talk to, take sick days, or try strategies, it still seems like you’re not feeling better – it might be time for therapy.”

Thank you for taking the time to share your self-care routines with us!

Many people began a daily meditation or exercise practice, such as yoga or walking. Some people found routines helpful; others loved the freedom of an unexpectedly unplanned day. People found new hobbies, new ways to connect with friends, and time to try new recipes. (Also: write a lot of diaries.)

Here is some wisdom from readers of this newsletter.

  • I have very successfully founded a transatlantic book club with a like-minded gentleman in Ireland and we read the same books twice a week for discussion. With any luck, I should be visiting Dublin in about a week to finally meet the other half of the transatlantic book club! Very exciting! – George Xuereb, Vancouver, Canada

  • I had to really put pressure on not to feel guilty about the 15-20 pounds I’ve gained from indulgence, relaxing at home, and being properly quarantined. My self-care ended up being focused on mentally allowing my body to exist without worrying about roles or “extra” pounds. – Sophia Haney, 29, Washington, DC

  • Cut Your Own Hair: Somehow it’s very liberating and empowering! – Susie Collins, 67, Annapolis, Md.

  • Being with my family, which also includes two small children, meant that I took a “night break” once a week. I put on twinkling lights and relax with a drink while I write a diary, listen to music or watch whatever I want. – Libby DePalma, 41, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.

  • At the very beginning of the pandemic, I stopped sleeping on my phone in my room. And now I set myself a timer the first time I look at it in the morning so I don’t get drawn into it. – Heidi, 32, Akron, Ohio

  • I don’t go to the movies or to social group meetings. I go to a local IHOP with a close friend on occasion. We are both vaccinated and we go at such an early evening hour (5pm) that the restaurant is almost empty and we ask and sit with no other customers around. – Dennis J. Crowley, 73, Morristown, NJ

  • Remember that when you are taking care of yourself, you are NOT being selfish. They make sure that you are the best for yourself, your family, and your job. – Mary Ellis, 58, Austin, Texas

  • After seeing that this pandemic may not go away for some time, I decided to start with some fears that I know I can overcome. So I joined a band. With the encouragement of my bandmates and our friends in the local scene, I sing, write lyrics and piano music every day. I break down the barriers I can instead of complaining about the ones I can’t. Even if you don’t want to be in a band … who doesn’t like singing in the car ?? It especially helps with all of the LA traffic that comes back. – Harley, 30, Culver City, California.

Next Friday we want to focus on the school year. We’d love to hear from you.

How is your family doing with school this year? What steps did you take to prepare? What lessons did you learn from the last pandemic school year that you will be applying in the fall semester? What do your children want to tell us?

Thanks in advance for sharing. We can use your answer in the next issue of Our Changing Lives, our series on major lifestyle changes during the pandemic.

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