Season 16 | Ep. 2

Mental Health After a Pandemic

Some have called the COVID-19 pandemic an equalizer or a shared experience, in that every single one of us has been impacted. We have all experienced a degree of fear, isolation or worry. What remains to be seen is how these feelings will impact our mental health.

On “Transforming Health: Mental Health After a Pandemic” we’ll hear from individuals who already had mental health concerns and then had to navigate through a pandemic. They’ll share their tips for others. Plus, why some feel connection and a sense of belonging will be the key to moving forward.

Some have called the COVID-19 pandemic an equalizer, a shared experience in that every single one of us has been impacted. We have all experienced in some way fear, isolation, worry. What remains to be seen is how these feelings will impact our mental health.

Worried person looks out windowWe’ve gone through a period of uncertainty. A lot of uncertainty. And uncertainty fuels anxiety.

The unrest and the tension is building with things that are going on. I mean, that just adds to anxiety. It has resulted in a time that for many, many people has really upended everything in their life.

After the shock, and after the confusion, and then the fears; there were people looking for resources to help them with that. And it’s often crisis that lead us to big breakthroughs.

In a way, if something good can come out quarantine and COVID, then I’m glad it’s opened us up to these conversations about what’s going on inside of us.

Today, health care is about empowering people to take control of their health. Whether creating a fitness routine, choosing the right procedures and medications, or adhering to treatment for a chronic condition. Capital BlueCross dedicated to underwriting Transforming Health, for the good health of the community.  WellSpan Health, helping patients reach their health goals through a coordinated system of physicians, hospitals, and convenient healthcare services and communities across central Pennsylvania. Learn more at wellspan.org. WellSpan Health for the journey that is life. Support also comes from viewers like you. Thank you.

Hello and welcome to “Transforming Health: Mental Health After a Pandemic.” I’m Keira McGuire. Over the next half hour, we’ll look at the impact of the pandemic on our mental health. We’ll hear from individuals who already had a mental health concern and had to navigate through a pandemic. They’ll share their tips for others. Plus, why some feel connection and a sense of belonging will be key to moving forward. First, let’s look at the impact of the pandemic on our mental health.

Hi, my name is Erika Saunders. I am a psychiatrist. I specialize in complicated mood disorders — depression, bipolar disorder. The time period that we’re in, having experienced the COVID pandemic has been an extremely challenging time period for everyone. For all of society. I think we need to realize that we have lived through something that is truly monumental in the fact that it is affected everyone on the planet. It’s not everyone equally, but its affected everyone.

Hi, my name is Sebene Selassie and I’m a meditation teacher and an author. This pandemic has given us the felt experience that we’re in the same ocean. You know, we’re all experiencing these waves. Especially those early days of the pandemic when there was so much shock and confusion and just unknowing. But we also recognize that we’re not in the same boats. Some people are literally on yachts, and some, you know, barely had rafts.

Older man showing signs of worryThe increased societal conversation around equity, equality, inclusion, and the terrible mistreatment of certain groups of individuals has all been a heightened conversation in the past year. It has resulted in a time that for many, many people has really upended everything in their life.

Shock and confusion. A lot of fear. There’s that sense of isolation and loneliness.

We’ve gone through a period of uncertainty. A lot of uncertainty. And uncertainty fuels anxiety. So, as the pandemic started, all of the mental health professionals really across the state in most programs transitioned very quickly to telehealth. There was a period of about six-to-eight weeks where we had a decrease in requests for mental health services. And then after that it was a real increase. The same pattern was seen after the 9-11 event. And after other major disasters. People are figuring out what they need to do to get by day-to-day. And the swell of anxiety, depression, substance misuse comes after that. And then since that time there’s been doubling to tripling — it’s a request for services.

Most people come to meditation because they have an issue. For a majority of people, that’s the case. And yes, anxiety is a huge one. That’s at epidemic levels in this country. Loneliness is another one. Also, at epidemic levels. Pre-pandemic, at epidemic levels in this country and around the world. Depression is another one. As a meditation teacher, I was extremely busy last year because everybody started meditating. You know, meditation apps started becoming super popular. And people in my life who have known that I teach meditation for years, have never shown any interest suddenly asking me like how do I meditate? So, yeah, I saw it everywhere. From small neighborhood groups to global companies were seeking meditation.

There’s been no age group, there’s been no group that’s been unaffected. So, we’ve seen increased need across the board, across the lifespan. We expect that the rates of need for mental health care will remain elevated for quite a long time. Probably several years. So, we’re planning for that. We’re thinking about that.

For those with existing mental health concerns, the onset of an isolating pandemic could have been life changing. The following are different stories from different people who share the same message for others with mental health concerns: you are not alone.

Hi, my name is Dan. And I have struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life. My childhood was really unstable. I didn’t have that structure that I needed. I have a growth hormone deficiency that caused me to be smaller than most. And I have epilepsy as well. I was picked on a lot. So, all those things kind of combined and led me down a path of negativity and depression. It’s very nebulous. It doesn’t really have a face or, you know, you can’t describe it. So, it’s just waves of these negative feelings and waves of those thoughts of suicide. Being alone was very hard for me, cause you have nothing but your thoughts. And when they’re negative thoughts and you have nothing else, well, you just go down into the abyss. And it’s not a fun place to be. I think I lived with it my whole life to the point where I just didn’t realize it. I didn’t have any frame of reference. It just so happened there was an event, a relationship ended, it just a, you know, the crack in the dam that let it all loose. That really — that was bad. That was a bad one. I-I was thinking of attempting suicide and I had been placed into a mental health facility. So, I had to hit rock bottom before addressing it all. I was in the hospital for, I don’t know, three or four days. I was on some medication. I got on some medication and then slowly the negativity started pouring off, coming off of me. And I was able to start taking action to change things around for my life. I have a note pad that I wrote down — that I write down my ten-ten goals that I want for my life. And as I go through them and accomplish them, I just add another one so it’s constant. It, you know, I cannot put it down because it’s so easy to fall back into a state of complacency. It’s a lot of work. But, when you get that ball rolling, and that’s what that medication did for me, you see that little bit of light, you have to go after it.  It’s called “stigma people.” Really, maybe it was from my own feeling of feeling disenfranchised or something. I felt like I needed to make a stand. And that sounded like something to rally behind. I realized when I was in the hospital and I was around people that had what — similar, you know, situation of what I was dealing with. That was amazing to me. It just made me feel better that I knew there was other people like me. None of the ones I’ve photographed, and even the ones I spoke to that haven’t been photographed, did I feel like I then know, right off the bat. It’s a common bond. Ultimately, I want it to help other people and just help them find what I did in the hospital that they’re not alone. There’s a lot of time to think. And like I said before thinking for someone who is depressed can be really, really scary. The unrest and the tension that’s building with things that are going on. I mean, that just adds to anxiety. I mean, I don’t care if you think, you know, if you have depression or not, anxiety’s anxiety. We all feel it. We all can feel that tension in the air. And, you know, I know people who are just worried about what is his outcome going to be, you know? And they truly are scared. And I think about those people a lot. If you can muster up — I know how it is when you’re depressed. If you can muster up that energy, reach out to some people. Try to get some-some individuals in your corner. You’ll be well on your way.

I’m Ev Reheard and I have borderline personality disorder. And I’ve been dealing with suicidal ideation for most of my life. For me, it feels like — [ laughter ] a lot of fight or flight with just kind of an aching need to escape. Or overcome, or overwhelming intensity of emotion. Not being able to transition easily between distress. And I — I didn’t understand what I was feeling for a long time. I don’t want to be in pain. I think of the suicidal ideation as a desire to escape from pain. The ultimate escape from pain because then I wouldn’t be able to feel it anymore. I wouldn’t have to face it or wake up back to it, or deal with it ever again. I had a fight with somebody that turned into that panic mode that didn’t go away for over a week. It was a whole week of me just being in panic mode and trying to come up with a way to die and not really having-not having a way out. Not knowing what to do. After a week of barely sleeping and running around trying to come up with a way to do it, I had to give in and seek help instead.  It was during that time that they told me to get dialectical behavior therapy which has been tremendously more helpful. So, it was a lot about learning the process about how to replace all the scary thoughts systematically with better thoughts. And on a continuing practice basis every day until it became more natural. Which, after 30 years of practice to get to feeling like that was natural. For me, having the strategies to be able to self-sooth was really essential part of being able to break out of those cycles. The thoughts come back. They do. I can’t say that- — I can’t say if they will ever go away. But it’s how I react to them that’s completely different. Whereas if a thought came up, I would think oh, it’s a sign. Like, there’s something wrong. There’s something going on I would read into it. And now, I say okay, let me redirect this into something else instead.

Borderline personality disorder for those unfamiliar is a very rare condition. I’m the only one in the cast with it. Amongst its symptoms are black and white thinking, fear of abandonment, and lack of clear sense of self. Up until the moment that I stepped in front of you, I wasn’t sure who was gonna come out and talk. And that’s what it is to have personality disorder truly. It was really exciting to be in a room full of other people like myself who identify as having mental illness. Who identified as being stronger and recovering as a result of it. But, at that point and time, honestly, it felt like strange to be able to find that many people who were in the similar situation. I was so thankful. I read the statistics about borderline personality disorder, and they made it sound like such a small fraction of people. And unfortunately, at that point and time, if you googled borderline personality disorder the top ten pages were about how to get away from your crazy girlfriend. Which was me at that point. I was that person. And I didn’t want to be seen that way. That was a great experience. And I knew doing it that it was going to be accessible for anybody who goggled bpd, that they were gonna see somebody else who felt positive about having it and who they were instead of the things that I had seen when I had to go look for it.  As a performer, I was frustrated that I hadn’t started playing music until I was an adult and I wanted to be better at it. So, I started a project where I would color code everything and give it shapes. I used a lot of the tools for people who had learning disabilities or stroke, or brain injuries and I just applied all of that knowledge into tools for myself and I got to have my first workshop and the ball’s just been rolling ever since.  COVID happening before I had gotten treatment would have been devastating for me, because a lot of my mental health issues are around having a sense of control and being in COVID is a situation where you have absolutely no control over where you can go, and who you can see and how much toilet paper you have. My advice to everyone who is in that place of not being able to get out of those cycles. If you do start to feel like your supports are not able to tolerate all of your panic, not able to help you get through, cast a wide net even for people that you don’t think are your friends because you don’t know when there’s going to be a moment that you are going to need one more connection. When we’re the person in crisis, we want to be heard. We get so busy talking that we don’t pause to listen, and listening is where the real healing starts to happen.

Women meditatingWhile we have been forced apart by the pandemic, inside our homes and behind computer screens and glass, many say it will be a feeling of connection and a sense of belonging that will push us forward.

I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and we immigrated here when I was three years old. We were kind of a lower middle class black family living in an upper middle class white neighborhood. So, I started experiencing kind of challenges with belonging really. I teach and write about belonging because for so long I felt like I didn’t belong. That led me on the path of meditation and eventually mindfulness. We’re not separate, and all the great wisdom traditions talk about that. They talk about non-separation or interconnection or love for your fellow beings. You know, it’s different language, but it’s all pointing to the truth, and so what I like to say is although we are not separate, we’re also not the same and we have to reckon with the fact that we each have our own personal histories, but we also have familial and ancestral histories, and we are part of political and social trajectories. That exploration of that paradox, we are not separate, we are not the same, is the fundamental way that we can actually achieve a sense of belonging, not only to ourselves, but also to each other. It feels like this year has given us a great pause, kind of structurally. There was this pause and a time for reflection, and it’s — in many ways it was just revealing so much. That was a big shift for folks, you know, to sort of reprioritize and start to really reflect on what was meaningful, what they wanted to pay attention to, what they wanted to do more of.

Right before COVID hit I was able to kind of get dialed in what I really wanted and what really mattered to me. And all it took then was just execution. I just came to a conclusion that I’m only going to live once and when you’re at the bottom like I was that means something else. I think people that were there, tend to go pedal to the metal, so that’s what I did. That’s what I’m doing. I’m going after it pretty hard, photography school, I’m leaving my current position to drive up to Montana in a camper van which I’ll be stay in throughout the summer until winter comes in Montana where I’ll be attending school. And then after school I don’t know what will happen and that’s kind of exciting. If I can figure some way to make this work the rest of my life that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just going to take pictures and live in a van down by the river.

I have to remind myself every single day that she wants me to keep living. I mean, honestly, I look back at the times in 2013, when she would come and stay with me and encourage me to just go ahead and figure out that would make myself feel healthier and want to have a reason to live. I want everyone to feel like they count, and they can be themselves, and bring something to the table that no one else can because when it comes to something like being an artist or a musician, too often people get told, “what makes you think you’re special enough to do that. And I want to be that person who say what makes you think that you are not that special. And that the world is missing out if you don’t bring your talent to the table. When I was a child there was an emphasis on fitting in and being a biracial child in a place where everybody is a lot the same, I had a lot of practice at that. But I think it’s important now to see it as a strength how we’re different. So, coming out of COVID, I hope that once we’re in the same rooms with each other, in the same buildings with each other, that we can hold on to our individuality and use it as a way to be closer to each other, as a way of learning more about the world.

This year has shown us that we can get through hard things, that we can meet challenges. We can meet uncertainty and we can not only survive, but we can even thrive.

So, in a way, if something good can come out of quarantine and COVID then I’m glad it’s opened us up to these conversations about what’s going on inside of us.

If we got through this past year, we can get through what’s next. There’s a way in which this past year had people really show up for challenges because we had to. We didn’t really have a choice. There was no one that was exempted. To recognize our interconnection and to take care of ourselves and each other through that. And to remember that that’s possible, I think is really, really gonna be helpful.

I heard that the first astronaut that looked down from space and saw the whole planet, it changed the way that we thought about things when we could see it from that perspective. We need to remember that we’re all just small parts of that.

You belong. You are not separate. You never were. You never will be.

I’d like to thank all of our guests for sharing their knowledge and experiences so openly. Please join us next time as we continue to share stories and transform health together. I’m Keira McGuire. Thanks for watching.

Today, healthcare is about empowering people to take control of their health. Whether creating a fitness routine, choosing the right procedures and medications, or adhering to treatment for a chronic condition, Capital BlueCross, dedicated to underwriting Transforming Health for the good health of the community. WellSpan Health, helping patients reach their health goals through a coordinated system of physicians, hospitals and convenient healthcare services in communities across central Pennsylvania. Learn more at wellspan.org. WellSpan Health, for the journey that is life. Support also comes from viewers like you. Thank you.

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Keira McGuire
Keira McGuire/WITF

Keira McGuire is a health reporter and multimedia producer for WITF. She hosts and produces Transforming Health television programs as well as other shows and documentaries for WITF’s Original Productions. McGuire produced the Emmy Award winning series HealthSmart for the last ten years. Keira previously worked at WBFF in Baltimore and WMDT in Salisbury as a reporter and anchor. She’s a graduate of Towson University.

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