The Mental Health Crisis No One Is Talking About

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

A friend of mine recommended a book to me a few months ago called “When The Body Says No”. I’ve been casually reading it over the last few weeks and something new clicked for me as I reflected on our current environment. This book can be a bit controversial and if you read the Amazon reviews you will see that many people interpret the point of the book to be (and subsequently object to the idea) that we are responsible for our medical issues such as cancer, Lou Gherig’s disease, MS, etc. I don’t want to get into a debate here on whether there are problems in the way the book is written or his sources. However, I do think this book makes one very important, and hopefully uncontroversial, point. There is a connection between our mental health and our physical health. That truth I hold to be self-evident! Think about commonly used terms like “gut-wrenching” or “my stomach is in knots”. They all point to the idea that an emotion can be felt like a physical manifestation. In particular, this book identifies chronic stress and emotional repression as the main culprits that cause the most damage in this mind-body connection.

I know first hand that this is true. I have suffered from IBS for the last decade and am quite confident that it’s caused by chronic stress or trauma. I’ve always wondered if Freud would diagnose me with struggling with the anal stage of development whereby individuals can become what you would call “anal retentive” or too rigid. What is ironic, is that my diagnosis caused me to become even more controlling over my diet and lifestyle to the point of overly regimented behavior. Any perceived loss of control over how, when, and what I could eat would send me into a tailspin which would then just make my disorder worse. Since I left my full-time job a few months ago to work for myself, I have become less controlling over my diet and consequently less sick. Curious indeed. But I write today not to (over) share the details of my medical condition. Rather it’s what this book led me to think about.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Right now we are all experiencing immense trauma collectively as a country. It’s called covid-19. It’s called white fragility/anti-racism/Black Lives Matter. How we decide to cope with that trauma could have serious consequences for our health going forward. I worry about our collective society and how we are going to process the societal traumas we are experiencing between Covid and increased racial tensions. It’s stressful and while those feelings can be masked, they can not be banished.

We have two choices in handling our response. We can express our feelings, discussing the good and the bad. I’ve seen a huge influx of Coaching clients who are taking this time to re-evaluate their career choices and try to separate what they think they should be doing from what they actually want to do. To me, this isn’t a coincidence that covid has created massive changes in our world and forced people to slow down enough for them to see that the life they are living isn’t making them fulfilled. The things they thought were important, turned out not to be.

The other option, the one I fear most may choose, is to repress our feelings. This can be in the form of actually holding in all our thoughts and emotions for fear of sharing or there may be those who think they just don’t have a choice and thus need to accept their current situation without complaint. Either way, this is a lack of processing of emotions. The thing about emotions is that you can’t ignore them. Whatever you choose to ignore now will just manifest in other ways and rear it’s ugly head later in life. As I tell my loved ones…do you want to feel your feelings now or feel them 10x stronger later at the most inopportune time?

This doomsday feeling I have is also influenced by a meta-analysis article I read at the beginning of the covid outbreak titled “The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce It: Rapid Review of the Evidence” by Brooks et al. This article looked at a series of prior studies on the effects of quarantine across different countries from past outbreaks such as SARS, Ebola, Equine flu, etc. In this article, they talked about how those individuals who were quarantined experienced more psychological distress symptoms than those who were not quarantined. It further talked about how the length of quarantine can exacerbate these symptoms, but in the article, they compared 7-day quarantines with 10-day quarantines.

In comparison, covid has an even longer quarantine period of 14 days. Even more distressing though is the idea that essentially all of us have been forced to engage in some degree of quarantine or social distancing for months, an exponentially longer time period than what has previously been studied.

All of this is to say that I believe we are on the precipice of a severe mental health crisis that may then trigger a slew of debilitating conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and auto-immune diseases if we do not properly address it.

What can we do to combat the effects of this societal trauma?

If there is one reflection I’ve had over the last few months it is the power of connection and an emotional support network. By that I don’t mean having a lot of friends, but rather having friends or colleagues with whom you can share your real thoughts. Essentially, someone who will just listen. The depth, not the breadth, of these relationships is what will define our mental and physical health over the next few years. This was made clear to me at two different points in time over the last few weeks.

The first was a result of covid, where I started to reflect on what connections I didn’t miss while forced to physically stay away from friends. Who could I fathom having a phone call or Zoom call with? Who could sustain a meaningful conversation? That was a surprisingly necessary reflection.

The other came about 2–3 weeks ago with the increased momentum and focus on Black Lives Matter. I have had some incredibly meaningful, intellectual, and emotional conversations with some friends and even friends I hadn’t spoken to in 10 years. I’ve also been disappointed by the lack of conversations I have had with others who I had considered close friends.

I have always said that everyone can’t be everything to you. We need to think of our friends as serving different purposes, rather than a binary “you are my perfect friend who meets all my needs” or “you are dead to me”. This realization over the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on me has just enabled me to move around my friend labels in my head. I have redefined who are the people I can develop more vulnerable and meaningful relationships with vs. who do I want to just have a quick gossip sesh with at a party once a year.

My advice?

Do a friend audit. Be vulnerable and reach out to people. I have not rejected a single person who has reached out to me in a vulnerable way, even if I never had a prior friendship with the person or hadn’t connected with them in a decade. I think we are all craving connection right now, particularly connections that allow us to talk through our thoughts and feelings. Find someone you can talk to. Don’t let the stress manifest itself in a more serious disease later in life.

If you feel like you want to reach out to a professional to help you work through your feelings before you are ready to talk to friends or family about it, my friend Jennifer Signet, who is an amazing Art Therapist, shared these best practices for finding a mental health professional:

For those who are facing financial hardship, try https://openpathcollective.org which offers sliding scale rates ($30-$60) for those that financially qualify.

For everyone else, go to https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists to find a Therapist, Psychiatrist, or Teledoc based on your insurance, orientation, and/or location.

For anyone whose issues are primarily centered around their work and feel like they want to make a change, I recommend finding an Executive Coach who can help you process and organize your thoughts and then create an action plan. Here is access to a FREE resource I created for and use with my Executive Coaching clients to help them start to identify their “North Star” to help them work through a career transition.

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Jess Wass

Jess Wass is a Career Coach & OD Consultant with a Masters in Org Psych focused on helping people achieve with intention. Check me out at www.jesswass.com.