Dear Reader: If COVID-19 Hurt Your Mental Health, I'm Sorry
An open letter of hope to anyone whose mental health has suffered as a result of the pandemic
I don't know who you are, but my guess is that if you've clicked onto this article, you may be struggling to cope right now.
For that, dear reader, I am incredibly sorry. I understand how hard it can be.
I know we're probably all numb to the idea of percentages, R rates and death figures by now. It's only understandable. We've been reminded of our mortality in such a harsh and excessive manner by way of every single form of media telling us how close we are to death - every day, for almost two years. So, it's natural that our minds would want to protect us by seeing the numbers as just that - numbers.
However, our mind can't protect us from everything that's been happening around the world and in our personal lives since the pandemic initially hit.
So, if you feel that your mental health has been impacted negatively by the pandemic, this letter is for you. Whether it is something you've never struggled with before, or a series of demons you've had to battle for a long time, I understand how frightening and unrelenting poor mental health can be. I write this for you as a reminder of some very important points that will hopefully bring you some solace.
Even if you are "safe", that doesn't mean the pandemic hasn't affected you
When I began to struggle, it took me a long time to connect the dots and even consider the pandemic as a factor in my declining mental health. Although I caught COVID in November 2020, the majority of my loved ones were still safe and I am fortunate enough to say that I haven't had to grieve any direct fatalities from the illness. So, I kept battling with the idea that I should feel fine and be unaffected because my life, for all intents and purposes, was still good.
In short, I didn't feel justified in my feelings or struggles. However, I realise that this was my privilege guilt talking. You know the one, "XYZ have had it so much worse, so I shouldn't feel bad."
I don't know of your personal situation, but one thing I know for sure is that nobody's lives stayed the same after the pandemic initially hit. It took something familiar, turned it on its head overnight, and has only just begun to rotate the right way round (and it's still not there yet).
Therefore, very quickly, the world became an unsafe territory with no clear return to normal in sight. Everything fell out of our control for each and every single one of us.
But if that's still not enough to convince you that your struggles are valid, think about it like this:
Consider everything was totally normal, but for some reason you had to ask your friend to isolate themselves in their home for an unstated amount of time with no clear end point. They could only leave once per day to buy groceries, and they were not allowed to come into physical contact with anyone outside their home.
You can't even get that far in this thought experiment because the simple fact of the matter is that you wouldn't wish that on anyone. But the reality is that this is what happened to all of us multiple times over the past year and a half. Think about that for a moment... what you wouldn't wish on anyone happened without your say or control multiple times in a horrifically short amount of time.
So, even if you are safe, it cannot be denied the immense psychological toll that this whole experience has had on you and I am sorry for any ways in which you have struggled.
It's okay to still not feel okay
I know we've heard the statement "it's okay not to be okay" hundreds of times. However, it is in these times I particularly feel the need to remind you again.
Because in order to avoid pain, we can sometimes lapse into denial. For example, maybe you think that just because you can finally go to that BBQ with your friends or that family holiday abroad, things should magically be okay with you now and that sense of internal social isolation should have dissipated as a result of the newfound social activities.
There are no "should(s)" anymore.
I don't know about you, but as wonderful as it has been to reunite with friends and family in person, I still feel an internal sense of loneliness and emptiness trailing along behind me, and I've been struggling to figure out why.
Why when I returned home after seeing friends, I was met with the same pangs of hurt and pain that I felt in the peak of the multiple lockdowns endured. Maybe you feel the same and maybe you feel just as confused as I do.
My theory is that the direct opposite of what hurt you in the first place isn't be an immediate antidote. So, immersing yourself in a busy social life won't simply eradicate all of the pain you felt over the course of this whole ordeal, and that's okay.
So, I would absolutely encourage you to continue spending quality time with those close to you. However, I would add a plea to be kind and patient with yourself if you still find remnants of a distant loneliness or anxiety from months long gone.
You are NOT weak
A very common thought experienced by those who struggle with either their mental health or with a mental illness is one circling around the idea of weakness. That if you could just try a bit harder then you could carry on.
I'm guilty of having these thoughts often. I frequently isolate myself from friends, struggle to plan for the future, have experienced workplace stress relentlessly for almost eight months, and still genuinely struggle to get out of bed in the morning.
But one thing I wish to say to you and myself is that we are not weak. The very fact that you're reading this article shows strength. Because there is strength in honesty, and the honest fact is that you may not be doing so well right now.
You know, I never understood why people congratulated and called those who were open about their psychological difficulties "strong". Not in a rude way of course, I just struggled to understand the logic behind it - until now.
See, opening up about that part of yourself is like standing naked on the street. You are vulnerable, open to the judging eyes of those around you, but you do it anyway because you know that the only way to heal is to reveal.
So, truly, if you are reading this, you are strong and I thank you for sharing your vulnerabilities with me because it is through sharing that we can begin to get better together.
You are NOT alone
Similar to the above, you may feel like you're the weak, wrong, or overly sensitive one for struggling as a result of the pandemic.
For the longest time, I thought I was an anomaly in my struggles too. On Instagram, I could see everyone's stories of "winter coffee walk" and "baking with my housemate". Everyone looked like they were coping fine with the pandemic and that it was just me who was beginning to feel cripplingly untethered by it all.
I ran a poll on my Instagram yesterday and asked my grand total of 482 followers, "Has COVID-19 impacted your mental health?"
79% of respondents said "yes" and every single "yes" respondent broke my heart slightly. Because all of the people who said yes were real people who I know personally and care about. Some of them were people who I speak to every single day, some of them are people I haven't seen since high school, but in some way they had all struggled.
Speaking further to some of my friends and colleagues, I began hearing stories of people reflecting just how much COVID-19 affected their mental health. Some of these were people who had never struggled with mental health before, so this was potentially an even scarier thing to have dealt with due to the novelty of it all.
As hard as some of the stories were to hear, they reminded me that I was not alone in my struggles and they reminded me of an even more important fact - that I am human.
And so are you. Humans aren't built to live in a state of euphoric happiness 24/7 and much less so in a pandemic. Therefore, I seek to remind you that you are no exception to the rule. I say that not to offend you, but to hopefully offer you some comfort that together we are all still trying to cope and figure this thing out, but most importantly, to remind you that you are not alone.
If you've made it this far, thank you for reading. I really hope that you have been able to feel comforted in some way by this.
I began speaking to my friends, family and co-workers about how I've been feeling and while it doesn't fix everything, it does take some weight off my shoulders.
I can't advise you on what to do except for also opening up to those around you and contacting your GP/family doctor if you wish to seek professional help and advice.
What I can say is, if COVID-19 affected your mental health, I am truly sorry. Please hang on in there and we will pull through. You are not alone.