Voices: Pursuing mental health in 2021

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May is Mental Health Awareness month. This observance began in 1949, and in some ways, it does not appear we have made much progress in the way we understand mental illness, practice mental health and respond to those who struggle with mental health issues.

All these years later, our core diagnostic tool—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, now in its fifth edition—is more than 900 pages of mental disorders and diagnostic criteria to help health care providers get on the same page when speaking of clinical issues related to patients and clients.

Many are familiar with some of the general categories—autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, depression disorders, bipolar disorders and anxiety disorders.

Most of us know someone or a family who has a child with autism, or a friend who has struggled with depression or anxiety. We may know someone diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. Many families have senior parents suffering with dementia.

However, COVID-19 has caused a spike in reported levels of depression and anxiety, as well as other mental health issues.

In June 2020, the Centers for Disease Control reported the following—a 40 percent increase in mental health symptoms, 31 percent increase in depression and anxiety symptoms, and a 13 percent increase in use of or increased use of substances. Also, 26 percent reported symptoms of trauma or stress, and 11 percent reported seriously considering suicide.

Six steps to pursuing mental health

If you find yourself somewhere in those elevated numbers, what can you do? There are several steps you can take.

1. If you have thoughts of suicide, keep the suicide hotline number in your phone where it is easily accessible. The number currently is 800-273-8255 and is expected to change to 988 by July 2022.

2. One of the most helpful steps you can take is to get your complete COVID-19 vaccination. Three currently are available in the United States, and all have demonstrated both efficacy and safety. Being vaccinated will diminish anxiety rooted in the fear of COVID-19.

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3. You may want to make an appointment with a trusted person to share the struggle you are having. It could be your pastor, primary care physician or a counselor you have seen in the past. Know: this is an initial step, and you’re not alone. This is a difficult time for many of us, and it’s not a sign of weakness or spiritual immaturity to be struggling during this year of COVID-19.

4. As we transition to more contact and activities, consider getting back into activities set aside during the pandemic. Getting outdoors—be it to sit on the porch with a cup of coffee, sit under the shade of a tree to read, or other activity—helps our mood. Walking and exercising are great stress relievers. Many of us will be addressing COVID-19 weight gains over the next months. We can start a sensible and age-appropriate exercise program now.

5. Connect with others. Like Londoners during the Battle for Britain in World War II, who poured out of bomb shelters into the streets to celebrate surviving another German bombing run, we need to move wisely to reconnecting. That may be at church, a local coffee shop or over the phone. We are made for connection, and one of the difficult parts of this pandemic is the isolation and fear it has created.

5. This is a time for grace and compassion for those struggling with mental health issues. We need to aspire to be like Jesus, who said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30).

COVID-19 has left many weary and burdened folks in its wake, and we are not over it yet. However, these are some good days to begin to exercise those “muscles” of graciousness, empathy, kindness, compassion and thoughtfulness as we move forward together.

We also want to pay special attention to those battling mental health issues or perhaps have lost a loved one during or because of COVID-19. Their hearts are double-burdened with a pandemic and a life-altering loss. Don’t forget those who grieve.

Let’s encourage each other to look upward to the Lord, outward to our neighbor and onward in hope.

Michael Chancellor is a licensed professional counselor in Round Rock, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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