We are not okay
A journalist who's covered the mental health effects of the pandemic reflects on the past two years
This time two years ago I was preparing for a trip to Spain. My first trip to Spain. I would spend 10 days exploring Madrid and Granada. It was a beautiful trip, and it was the end of something. I remember watching the news on a television screen in the Madrid airport while I waited for my flight home, and they were telling us the virus had just reached Europe. Of course, it had been there longer than they knew.
In March, the lockdowns began. I found myself filled with fear. I was afraid of the virus, but I was equally afraid of isolation. Would my mental health hold? I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for many years. These unwanted guests almost killed me shortly after my mother passed when I was 20. I worried about others who struggled with the same afflictions.
I found myself reaching out to strangers online and offering them counsel. I’ve been writing about psychology and neuroscience for a decade and thought I could help in some way if people were struggling to cope with the circumstances. I realized I had one tool—writing—that would have the largest impact.
I’ve been writing about the psychological effects of the pandemic ever since. I’ve interviewed countless psychologists and sociologists. I’ve done extensive research. What I’ve learned frightens me. Millions of Americans are dealing with anxiety, depression, panic disorder and PTSD because of this pandemic. These ailments will not be short-lived. Our country barely gave a shit about their mental health before the pandemic, and things have gotten much worse.
What is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the situation we find ourselves in is that we’re expected to pretend like none of this is happening. When was the last time the person you work for asked how you’re doing while we’re facing a historic pandemic? The gears of capitalism must grind on, and they grind us through them. You must be productive despite the fact you’re being crushed like an abandoned car in a junkyard.
It’s no wonder that our mental health is deteriorating. Not only are we dealing with a global pandemic—we’re constantly facing the reality that democracy is coming apart, the climate is gasping for breath and we’re living in a world where Mark Zuckerberg exists. Sorry. I just hate him.
I could find some solace if I thought our mental health was being treated as a serious matter, but that’s not the world we live in. Our politicians will acknowledge that this is a time of severe distress, but they offer no solutions. We’re expected to just deal with it. I suspect that we’d be a lot better off as a country if more of us were able to talk to a therapist now and then.
So here we are. I took another trip to Spain in August of last year, and I even got to visit Paris and Lisbon, Portugal. It was the best trip of my life—despite the fact we were dealing with the delta variant at the time. It was difficult to figure out how to enjoy such a trip when none of the bars or restaurants let you go inside and everyone was wary of strangers. I was desperate for new acquaintances, and I learned how to talk to them from our distanced outside tables. It was a vision of something I’d simply have to learn to live with. We’re going to be living with this thing for some time.
I’m often asked, as a journalist who’s been writing about the pandemic since it began and had been writing about infectious diseases long before the pandemic, if things will ever go back to normal. My answer depends on how you define “normal.” Will the pandemic end and will we again start going to restaurants, bars and concerts without worrying about COVID? Yes, I’m quite sure that will happen eventually. Will we ever be the same? Absolutely not. We will forever be marked by this indelible experience.
The question for me is how we move forward. Do we decide to continue to treat mental health as a thing to be addressed once we’ve dealt with everything else? Or do we give it the consideration it deserves? I fear we will likely fail to meet this moment. We are in a mental health crisis. We act as if we are not. I fear we will likely continue to sweep something so crucial under the rug. I hope I’m wrong.