Dealing with mental illness is a struggle without the added burden of a global health crisis. Amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, caring for your mental health can feel like an overwhelming task, particularly for the 7.7 million American youth living with a mental health disorder. Since the novel coronavirus reached America’s coasts in March, the U.S. has seen a rise in mental illness rates, and many individuals already struggling with their mental health have reported worsening symptoms. This is an unsurprising consequence of a crisis that requires us to stay indoors and away from loved ones as we grieve the loss of our normal lives, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people lost to COVID-19. Hopelessness, loneliness, grief and fear are all common responses to the uncertainty, trauma, and isolation of this moment. And, as necessary as they are to protect the public from the spread of disease, widespread closures and government-issued stay at home orders exacerbate these mental health concerns by cutting people off from in-person resources, treatments, and supports. Social distancing is a vital step towards protecting our collective physical health, but it is undeniably also harming our mental health.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic rages on, youth suffering with mental illness struggle to access vital support systems and practice the coping skills that keep us mentally healthy. School closures cut students off from a range of mental health supports, like trusted teachers and counselors, affinity groups, clubs, and friends. Financial strain caused by coronavirus-related income and job loss makes access to mental health treatment less of a reality for many. For young people fortunate enough to continue to be able to access treatment virtually, shaky WiFi and the looming fear of family members overhearing Zoom therapy sessions can hinder open communication with a mental health professional.
Even young people who do not live with mental illness are struggling as they find themselves suddenly without the everyday experiences that maintain their emotional wellbeing. Disjointed video calls have become a weak substitute for real face-to-face human connection, which is a proven antidote to depression and a range of other physical and mental health issues. With schools closed, many young people are trapped in toxic or emotionally draining home situations. This is even more of a concern for LGBTQIA+ youth with unsupportive families and young people in emotionally or physically abusive living environments. For those quarantining at home with family members or roommates, privacy and time alone to focus on your mental health are nearly impossible to find. Small everyday moments of joy sparked by an in-person interaction with a friend or a trip to a lively public space are an increasingly distant memory as we stay home for months on end to protect each other from the threat of disease. Even experiencing the mental health benefits of endorphin-releasing exercise has become more difficult as sports seasons are cancelled and gyms have turned into public health hazards. These lost opportunities to de-stress and connect with others have a profound impact on our collective emotional wellbeing.
Oregon’s government has a responsibility to address the mental health crisis underlying the physical one. Like most U.S. states, Oregon has failed to meaningfully acknowledge the mental health implications of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Oregon consistently ranked among the states with the highest mental illness rates and least access to care. It’s time that we reform our broken mental healthcare system so that we can emerge from this pandemic a healthier and happier state than we entered it. Governor Kate Brown should follow the lead of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has tasked over 8,000 mental health providers with helping New Yorkers cope with the mental health dimension of the pandemic. Further, Oregon schools should be more intentional in continuing to provide the emotional supports many students rely on when attending school in person. In the face of such a life-altering public health crisis, schools and governments need to find creative ways to support our students’ mental health needs as we grapple with the difficult emotions that come with illness, death, financial insecurity, social isolation, and uncertainty.
Calla Rhodes is a senior at Lincoln High School and a member of Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.