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How COVID-19 May Be Destigmatizing Mental Health Issues in America

Therapy session

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Key Takeaways

  • Stress and anxiety are surging in the midst of COVID-19.
  • As more people experience emotional difficulties, mental health may become more destigmatized.
  • Employers and individuals need to take a closer look at how mental health is being viewed.

Adjusting to working from home, dealing with unemployment, or doing long shifts as a frontline worker. Spending a little too much time cooped up with family, or feeling isolated from being alone. Trying to manage homeschooling and childcare, or wondering when you'll be seeing the grandkids again.

Everyone's COVID-19 experience is unique in terms of work and home challenges, but one aspect of the pandemic seems to be fairly universal: People are struggling.

"We simply were not made to operate in this way, with so much uncertainty," says Cheryl Carmin, PhD, psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "The brain loves routine, knowing what's coming next, and familiarity. To be thrown into the opposite of that, so quickly, is understandably causing quite a lot of anxiety, fear, and stress."

That reaction is so common that the Centers for Disease Control has a section on its Coronavirus page about the mental health effects of pandemics, including:

  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Increased use of tobacco, alcohol, or other substances

But there is an upside, too. With so many people sharing a higher level of stress and overwhelm, there seems to be less stigma about mental health—and that may lead more people to seek help for mental health issues, Carmin says.

"Stigma has been a huge barrier for many people, especially because some might think they'll be punished in by their employers or that they're weak for getting help," she adds. "But it's very possible that greater acceptance of mental health care is part of the new normal."

How Americans Differ

As individuals, families, companies, and insurers face a potentially different landscape with mental health due to COVID-19, it's likely the U.S. will take a deeper dive into how emotional issues are handled here compared to other countries, says Denise Rousseau, PhD, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College. That could have a profound impact on the way mental health treatment is handled here.

"In Europe, for example, mental health is seen as the responsibility of the community, and in Asia, it's seen as the responsibility of the family, but here it's viewed as a challenge for an individual," she says.

"Because of that, there may be less of a feeling of overall support, especially from an employer, as well as from friends and family members. Someone may think he or she will see pushback in the form of losing promotion opportunities, being seen as fragile, and losing the respect of people they love. That belief can be pervasive."

Finding a New Mindset

Another challenge in the U.S. going into the pandemic, she adds, is that it's less acceptable to be sad here. There's a culture of positivity that can feel almost toxic to someone who is experiencing feelings that are normal in a pandemic, like grief, loss, pessimism, and irritation.

Denise Rousseau, PhD

Feeling down is part of life. It's not a problem to resolve aggressively, it's an acknowledgment that we can't be happy all the time. Mental health isn't about trying to get people to feel upbeat no matter what, it's about building resilience. As we all navigate through this together, that will hopefully become more prominent.

— Denise Rousseau, PhD

As the stigma lifts and the culture changes, the sense of shared trauma and experiences are making it easier for people to talk not just about their own struggles, but to recognize those issues in others, believes Carmin.

"COVID-19 is prompting conversations that have been needed long before the pandemic hit," she says. "We're talking about what employers should be doing, what public health officials should be doing, what role healthcare providers can play. We're talking about compassion fatigue, anxiety, depression, all those difficult topics. And that's good to get it all out in the open."

What This Means For You

If you find yourself struggling with emotional and mental health challenges during this time of intense uncertainty and unrest, you're certainly not alone.

Check with your health insurance provider for information on what type of mental health services might be covered—especially since that coverage may have expanded in the past few months.

Also, ask your primary care physician or another healthcare provider for appropriate referrals. Often, you may be able to do telehealth sessions even as a new patient. Even if you're not ready to take the first step into getting mental health services, it can be helpful to know in advance what resources are available, and what coverage for them might be.

But if you are having any thoughts of suicide, don't delay treatment. Help is available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

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  1. CDC. Coping with stress. Updated June 12, 2020