Think back to the holidays in 2019. The world was a very different place: “Baby Yoda” was taking the internet by storm, the Cats movie had just been released, Donald Trump was impeached (the first time) by the House of Representatives. Chances are, you also enjoyed holiday parties with co-workers, get-togethers with friends, and trips home to see family.
As we now approach our second Covid holiday season, we can reflect on how much everything has changed for all of us. There are of course the individual and personal tragedies of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in this country – and the hundreds of thousands of families who will be missing a loved one this year. There are also likely increased feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression than before the pandemic. A recent study released by the CDC proves it, showing a correlation between anxiety and depression and the number of positive Covid cases.
We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. So-called “deaths of despair “ – those caused by suicides, drug overdoses, or alcoholism – increased significantly through 2020 and show no slowing down. These are extreme, albeit increasingly common, cases of people who can no longer overcome the challenges they face. But we also know that mental health and emotional wellbeing often run along a spectrum. There is a difference between feeling depressed and the prolonged hopelessness of clinical depression, for example.
We all cope with life’s challenges differently, whether those be the loss of a loved one, a relationship breakup, or loneliness. While some people overcome their grief quickly, others require more time and support to feel better. But the fact is that we all go through issues that impact us on an emotional level. You only need to turn on the news or scroll through Facebook to see how much the emotional toll is having on us all. Pick up the phone and chat with a friend or colleague and you can hear it in their voice when you ask how they’re doing.
One of the worst triggers for emotional challenges is feeling alienated. This sense of loneliness, of abnormalness, is the most common of emotional disorders. This is why the holidays are often such a challenging time for people suffering from emotional challenges. When they see their friends’ smiling photos and family trips, the gap between their external world of glitter and lights and how they feel inside is unbearable. A full 11% of Americans express that they feel extreme loneliness during the winter holidays – that’s almost 37 million people. And 70% say they are worried about their family and friends feeling lonely this holiday season.
We have millions of people like Jane living in the US, dreading the holidays, stressed, and afraid. Not just people who lost someone close, but also newly separated couples who didn’t survive the pandemic, single moms or dads, or veterans away from home. But for everything that is written about the mental health impacts of the pandemic, a lot less has actually been done about it.
As we approach the winter holidays I’m thinking of Jane. We met last year, a few weeks before the holidays. Jane had just lost her oldest son after losing her second son and spouse a few years prior. She was devastated and couldn’t get out of bed. The one thing she kept saying was that she will have no one in the world to say “Merry Christmas” to her. This was heartbreaking. My team at Circles organized a group for people that lost their loved ones to meet online and be together on Christmas eve. Around 10 minutes in, they were all crying, overwhelmed with a renewed sense of support.
The CDC also recently called for increased access to telehealth behavioral health services amid the pandemic. Any way people can get access to professional mental health support is critical. But we all must also play a part in supporting each other. Research has shown that developing meaningful connections in group settings is key to overcoming life’s obstacles. That means that there is someone out there, likely even in your own friend group, who is struggling with an issue that you have already overcome. Your shared experience equips you to provide them with support and show them that they are being heard and understood by someone who has been through the same thing.
One positive benefit of the Covid pandemic is that we are much more open, as a society, about discussing mental health topics and struggles. From Simone Biles to Ted Lasso, this new willingness to recognize and engage in mental health issues is clear. This holiday season, we need to embrace that and look for ways to support each other so we can all feel better and heal together.