Director’s Log | October 2020

Whack-A-Mole and Mental Health

Every time we think we are seeing the beginning of the end of COVID-19, there’s a new wrinkle that reminds us we may not even be at the end of the beginning. As the virus just disappears in one place, it pops up in another, like some viral version of Whack-A-Mole.

This month IEI has spent a lot of time looking at the mental toll it takes on us to play that game. Our rural faith team, working with Prevent Child Abuse NC and the NC Council of Churches, did a week of webinars looking at the impact the cascade of stresses is having on children, and the “protective factors” we need to shore up to protect them. We launched the six community teams we are highlighting for their creative work in addressing emerging mental health challenges. We heard about the toll the pandemic is taking on those with existing mental health conditions through the eyes of an NC State professor. And in the final installment of our series “ReCONNECT to Move Forward,” on October 29, we looked closely at the different ways the pandemic is affecting the mental health of those in different demographic groups and how mental health concerns are affecting all of us.

There are a few big things I think I’ve learned about mental health this past month.

It’s on us. As IEI’s Alicia James noted in our October 29 webinar, “self care is not selfish.” We can’t count on others to care about us as much as we care about ourselves. We need to give ourselves permission to disconnect, breathe deeply and cut ourselves slack.

It’s not just on us. As one of our webinar participants noted, right now it seems like “everything is on fire.” In this moment we have to reach out to, rediscover, listen to and learn from our friends. We need to share our pain and fears and tears with people who know us and love us, and to find the professionals (now more than ever available and covered by insurance virtually) who can walk us through the fire.

Recovery will be slow, not magical. We need to be honest that we are all experiencing something traumatic right now. Our children are going through what our rural faith team described as a shared “adverse childhood experience.” There will be diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder for many of us. As much as we want to take an E-Z Pass to instant recovery, we can’t afford to hurry it. As we emerge from the portal of pandemic to our new normal, NC Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green told us in a closing keynote October 29, we shouldn’t try to walk through with all our baggage still in hand. This is a critical opportunity, if we take it, to shed that baggage and begin again better.

We can come out of this bad time better. The statistics on what is happening to our mental health right now are almost unbelievable.

  • Twice as many of us – 40% – have a diagnosable mental health condition as we had a year ago.
  • Three quarters of those taking care of an older adult are struggling with a mental health condition.
  • Seven times as many of us, 26% – and 37% of parents with children under the age of 18 – have a severe mental health condition. One in four 18-24 year olds say they have considered suicide in the past month (please go to our website for a free download of an amazing film, Listen, and join us November 5 from 5-7 p.m. with the film director, Erahm Christopher).

But the same numbers that scare us give us power. They create an opportunity for action, to move mental health from something we don’t talk about to something we all care about. As Dr. Giselle Corbie-Smith noted in the webinar, “the fourth wave of the pandemic could be a mental health wave.” That wave could, finally, be big enough, normalizing enough, to create opportunity for lasting changes – in our own attitudes and in public policy.

As with every pandemic crisis the challenge in mental health issues is locating the time and brain space to step forward, the clarity and consensus to articulate what needs to be done, and the patience and will to make it happen. Amid the exhaustion and the mole-whacking of daily life, who’s ready to step up?