Editor’s note: Alyssa Rieckelman is a licensed professional counselor for the Center for Life Resources.
As a mental health professional, I work with individuals whose struggles with mental illness began long before COVID-19.
Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Major Depression all have their own trials and tribulations, treatments, and medications.
However, without fail there is one constant. One aspect of well-being that I always, to the point of irritation of some of my clients, suggest and strategize on: developing social supports.
For many reasons, people who experience these mental illnesses struggle to develop and maintain close bonds at varying points throughout their lives. Now, in the time of COVID-19, this is more difficult than ever.
In fact, people who have never struggled with their mental health are starting to recognize these same struggles within themselves. The mere thought of brushing up against someone in the grocery aisle can bring about anxiety.
So, we practice social distancing, keeping 6-10 feet away from anyone who might sneeze, cough, or otherwise share unwanted bodily contact with us. While keeping physical distance might protect your physical health from the current epidemic, keeping ourselves distant from our social supports may be causing detrimental effects on your mental health both now and in the long-term.
Researchers agree that social support is linked to psychological health. In fact, creating, engaging in, and maintaining social bonds is a fundamental human need — so much so that when we are deprived of them, we begin to see a decline in our overall well-being.
Without close and caring relationships, we are more likely to experience anxiety and depression.
Even for people who have never reported a negative life event, feeling lonely can cause depression in and of itself. Social supports provide information to an individual that they are cared for and loved, esteemed and valued, and belong to a network of individuals on whom they can count in times of need. Overall, people with satisfying levels of support seem to cope better with stress, are healthier, recover from illness more quickly, and seem to be better adjusted.
However, developing close and meaningful relationships is hard enough when the federal government isn’t mandating the population “stay at home.”
Fortunately, we live in an age when technology has found its way into almost every aspect of our lives, and we can use that to our advantage. While you might not have a degree in psychology, you can still have a large impact in supporting the mental health of those close to you.
In this case, think quantity over quality. Simply reaching out through FaceTime, Zoom, Google Meet, phone, and even text to say hello, look someone in the eye, and ask them about their day is enough to show that you care.
Do not be put off by “not knowing what to say.” Your presence is enough. There are two sides to the support coin, and this one is usually the hardest: don’t wait for someone to ask you what is wrong. Reach out and ask for help.
It will be there. Especially now, social distancing can quickly become social isolation, and while more and more people are beginning to feel the creeping feeling of anxiety and depression, the stigma it carries is just as strong.
A lack of social bonds is a real and inescapable cause of mental distress. There is nothing wrong with you. In fact, it is just a reminder that you are absolutely human, one whose ancestors have survived incredibly hard times because they have banded together to tackle life’s problems.
Now, in the time of COVID-19, we must band together, staying physically distant but socially connected. And when this is all over and the chaos resumes, remember that the need is still there. Remember how it felt to get that random text with an oh-so-relatable meme. Remember what it meant to see that picture of your niece and nephew. Remember the excitement to hear your best friend’s voice. Remember that we all need to feel loved, valued, and that we belong.