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Taking a Cue From Those with Mental Illness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Julie Benn, NAMI San Diego 

Today we distance ourselves from others. We have for a while now. Before public health guidelines were introduced for us to shelter at home and maintain a physical distance from others, some of us did that anyway. Our brains laid down the orders and our psyches concurred. And we stayed home and away and lived in isolation while still trying desperately to escape ourselves.

Today we live in fear that something bad could happen. That it is lurking behind every corner and countertop. Something that could invade us, kill us, or alter our lives forever. Some of us have felt this way for decades. Way before a pandemic made us all afraid.

We take things by the moment now. Not knowing what will happen from one day to the next. How we will act, where we will go. What is allowed in our existence is often in question. Yet, for one in five of us, we’ve changed constantly forever. One in five live with a mental health condition in the U.S., and that means we already need to take things by the moment. One day we can take on the world, the next we cannot get out of bed. In flux is our way of life.

COVID-19 has altered daily existence dramatically. For many of us, it’s simply globalized a way of life that was already all too familiar.

Mental illness affects approximately 20 percent of people and the symptomology resembles this new reality that 100 percent of the population is now experiencing. The isolation, nagging fear, obsessive worry and fluctuating energy and motivation levels are nothing new to some of us. Before COVID-19, many of us simply called this life as usual.

I hazard a guess that some of us who have lived with mental illness are in a unique position to, dare I say, deal with our “new” global reality perhaps better than others? We come equipped with decades of handling what are maybe new emotions/feelings/circumstances to others who’ve not been plagued to this point by depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD and the like.

We get this. It’s our stomping grounds. We know what it’s like to be okay one day and not able to move from the couch for the next five. It’s in our wheelhouse to be immersed in fear and panic, yet go on putting one foot in front of the other day after day after day.

Yet it is also in our repertoire to heal. We understand what it feels like to give each other grace, to be easy on ourselves on harder days, to adjust our expectations, to be tender with our symptoms. We have things like coping skills and therapy and medication to combat the loneliness and obsessive fear of a life beyond our control. Yes, we have been a population marginalized in the shadows for the way our psyches work.

Now, others are starting to understand some of what we experience. I hope it helps to open the conversation about mental health and make people more educated and empathetic. Maybe now it is actually our time to light the way.