The increasing availability of the COVID-19 vaccine has created an abundance of hope and optimism, but as we pass the one-year mark of the pandemic, we cannot lose sight of the fact there is still work to do and many continue to face challenges.
The impact of COVID-19 has been far-reaching. Weeks of periodic isolation, loss of income, disrupted work or home routines, and fear of illness has weighed heavily on many. As our focus turns to ensuring everyone who is eligible for the vaccine receives it, we cannot lose sight of the physical, emotional, and mental toll the pandemic has had.
Alarmingly, four in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And in Massachusetts, one in three adults reported experiencing 15 or more days of poor mental health during the past year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's COVID-19 Community Impact Survey.
There is guilt from not being able to provide enough help to loved ones, and sadness caused by being unable to hug a grandchild, parent, or grandparent. Others have felt isolated and lonely. Some feel shame from being suddenly unemployed, on top of the loss of income. These emotions can lead to mental health crises if left unchecked.
As we navigate the COVID-19 crisis and the constantly changing environment around us, mental health and wellness are more important than ever. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health. Studies prove our emotions, feelings, and beliefs are directly connected to our physical health, and stress can negatively affect the gut, heart, brain, and immune system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illness, especially depression, increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
There are steps we all can take to improve our mental health that will show immediate results.
First, be mindful of extreme mood swings, anxiety, withdrawal, difficulty focusing, or expressions or feelings of hopelessness. When you see these symptoms, trust your instincts, and don't hesitate. If you recognize them in yourself, or suspect you do, call your family physician or your health plan for advice. You won't be alone, it's far more common than you think.
Namimass.org offers many mental health resources, and the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health operates a 24/7 emergency services/mobile crisis intervention hotline at 877-382-1609.
Don't forget that many medical professionals are now available for online consultation from the comfort of your home, so you don't have worry about getting to the appointment, transportation, or parking to talk with an expert who can help.
On the other hand, if you see these symptoms in others, health leaders have long urged Americans to be more engaged on matters of mental health. "If you see something, say something" is an important mantra. Something as simple as a gentle "How are you doing?" can open a door to a conversation that will help those who may be struggling.
You can also take proactive steps by suggesting professional help, such as a licensed therapist or online support group, or offering support such as picking up groceries, checking in regularly, and learning about support networks to share with your friend or family member.
Second, improving your mind-body relationship can positively impact your overall health. Take care of your body by taking deep breaths, eating healthy, well-balanced meals, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding excessive alcohol, tobacco, and substance use.
Finally, be sure to take time each day to do something that offers you a healthy break and a way to alleviate some stress. It can be a walk, listening to a podcast, yoga, connecting with a friend, getting a few minutes of fresh air, or another activity to promote self-care and wellness.
We all need to work together to achieve emotional and physical wellness. Remember that you don't have to face these challenges by yourself. Many friends and healthcare providers are ready, able, and willing to help.
Despite this past year's obstacles, there is much hope on the horizon. But we need to be alert to warning signs in ourselves and those we love. Help is there if you need it – just ask.
David Morales is the general manager of UniCare, a health benefits company serving Massachusetts state and municipal employees and retirees located in Andover, Mass. Dr. Bernard Bettencourt, a board-certified specialist in emergency, occupational, and environmental medicine, is the medical director at UniCare.