A reporter reached out to me recently, asking how people can help themselves and others during a time like this. My first response was that communities will have to let this historical moment radicalize them. This means not waiting to be impacted personally to realize that our fates are interconnected right now. Americans always seem to learn the hard way — through the hindsight of grieving avoidable tragedies — that our spirit of individualism doesn’t mean our lives aren’t intertwined, and that our welfare isn’t collective. But we can’t survive this pandemic by waiting to be thrust into awareness after the fact, once our small bubble bursts. GoFundMe funeral fundraisers and a million “Thoughts and prayers!” will never negate the repercussions of thinking “It’s not my problem yet, so I don’t care/won’t say anything.” We have to act as if every death is close to us, because we could be next.
This pandemic has wreaked such havoc on societal mental health because our panic is just as much about real and imagined scarcity as it is the virus. Panic has further exacerbated the typical American’s daily stress about feeling financially insecure and lacking adequate resources — namely, childcare, food, and the paid sick leave necessary to afford internet, rent and utilities, should they fall ill. And since Americans’ financial stress is practically chronic, the panic never ceases, even despite a number of city and state governments suspending evictions, school districts offering free meals, and internet and utilities service providers offering grace periods. Some of are so debilitated by the isolation and panic, they can’t even muster the energy to look for what resources actually do exist, which is why I compiled this streamlined list.
This pandemic is also challenging people’s faith in the belief that rugged individualism promises an American Dream. There’s a general sentiment of betrayal about the realization that our government only ever seems prepared to fund Wall Street bailouts or war. In the past week, we’ve witnessed Trump pull $1.5 trillion of capital injections out of thin air, to bail out the stock market and billionaire executives , amidst a “shortage” of testing kits. And now there’s evidence that several Republican senators were briefed on COVID-19 weeks before the general public knew. Cashing in millions of stock shares was their first priority. Oh, and the family owners of WalMart, the Waltons, just transferred $48 billion of Walmart shares to a family trust.
It’s disorienting for many to realize that the capitalist system they once trusted, which ties healthcare to employment, can cause a destructive level of panic when blindsided and outstripped of resourcefulness by disaster or pandemic. Our lack of preparedness, based on the assumption that things like this don’t happen to good, hard-working Americans like “us” — versus “them” and the rest of the world — has upended our entire lives. Disillusionment is also a part of our stress.
Suddenly, ransacked grocery stores resemble what many imagined a socialist safety net to be. Suddenly, we realize a handful of billionaires have been denying the vast majority of us the privilege of sick leave. We realize the hidden agenda in schools: conditioning us to believe America is fair, poor folks are lazy, and rich people never cheat. We realize, everything is political — that you’re either at the table or on the menu. We realize our materialistic culture has led to a false sense of class solidarity with billionaires who contribute less than we do with our meager earnings. And in the coming months, it’ll become even more clear that a basic safety net of public services could’ve cost us a lot less than trillions, if we’d had invested in it all along.
The lesson in this pandemic should be that there’s a price to pay for forgetting and neglecting the vulnerable. We’re all vulnerable right now, regardless of borders, class, or whatever other divisions and hierarchical identities we like to pretend are cellular-deep, to ignore inequity and justify privilege. Thus, now is the moment for people to embrace community care and interdependence, even despite quarantining and “social distancing”, and to see preventative measures intended to protect our collective welfare as both a form of self-preservation and an ethical and moral obligation to stay socially responsible.
Let’s be proactive, not reactive. Let’s not allow conspiracy theories, denial, or resistance to change come back to bite us.
During such a stressful time, regaining your sense of control requires community, rest, self-awareness, and an intentionally optimistic perspective. Use social media to stay connected with credible platforms that offer hope and practical information. Also, take a strengths-based approach to affirming what yourself and others are doing well. Be mindful of when your attention wanders to negative news, worst-case-scenarios, anxious nitpicking, or self-criticism. To that end, keep your mind as refreshed as possible, and know that it’s OK to prioritize rest over productivity right now. Every system and person is over capacity.
We’re all anxious and on edge, but there is a path forward if we stick together. We are each other’s safety net. Here are some tips and resources to lighten the load.
Approach conflict empathetically. During this time, it’s important to navigate conflicts and tension compassionately, keeping in mind that the uncertainty of the times is weighing down on all of us, and even possibly triggering trauma responses. Trauma-informed approaches to mental health emphasize the fact that our nervous system’s fight-or-flight mode, which this pandemic has triggered for many, impedes upon emotional regulation and executive functioning. So, if a family member or housemate seems unusually disorganized, forgetful, or snappy, keep the context in mind.
Be mindful of media consumption. Are you seeking out news that feeds your paranoia, or helpful information and resources that reassure you there is a collective effort to survive this moment in history? Around the clock, people are working tirelessly to control the outbreak, and many more people are recovering from coronavirus than dying from it. Read about hopeful stories as much as breaking news and clickbait. If you can’t unplug, just be mindful of the proportion of despair and hope you’re consuming. Focusing on the strides being made can alleviate anxiety arising from uncertainty about what will happen next.
Distract yourself with something joyful. Don’t feel guilty about mitigating panic with joy, or even humor, during this time. When the news makes you feel heavy, shift your focus to a distraction that offers you peace of mind. Constantly being “on”, and bracing ourselves breaking news, is not only exhausting, but also an unsustainable source of energy. Feel free to share gifs and memes that bring levity to the grim realities of this situation, so long as they are respectful of those who have not been so fortunate.
Techniques for calm. Mindfulness can be extremely helpful for remaining calm, particularly grounding techniques that interrupt overthinking, and reconnect us to our bodies, immediate environment, and the present moment. Gratitude exercises can also be useful for counteracting fear-based cognitive distortions and negative assumptions that can eclipse our faith and appreciation of what is going right.
What if I feel hopeless? If your anxiety about coronavirus and the pandemic feels unbearable, please do reach out to a crisis line, via call or text. Remember that crisis lines are for all crises, not just suicidality. As a former crisis counselor of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and The Trevor Project, I can attest that many people call crisis lines just to vent. I loved those calls, because they reflected a reduction in societal mental health stigma and the impact of advocacy.