By Phebe Bell, Behavioral Health Director
When my children were little, moments of transition or change sometimes caused them to feel anxious or unsure. I remember my daughter’s kindergarten teacher telling me that every day when it was time to go to recess and join the throngs of older children on the playground, a little hand would slip into hers for the walk down the long, noisy hallway. My daughter needed just a small show of reassurance and connection to make the transition from the safe classroom to the bigger world.
I think of this as a metaphor for the moment we are in right now, the transition away from this unusual chapter of isolation and disconnection. I imagine that some of us are eager and excited to join the noisy throngs, ready to face big social gatherings and the dynamics and energy that accompany being amongst people again. And probably others of us are a bit like my daughter at age five – needing a bit of reassurance and connection to counter the anxiety the transition may be surfacing. And still others may truly not be ready or able to step back into their pre-COVID lives. The impacts of the past year have been intense, and for some it may take time and significant support to make this transition.
In the face of these challenges, what are the strategies that will allow us to successfully embark on this new chapter of more “normal” lives? I think that one important first step is to acknowledge the grief and loss that has occurred in the past 16 months. Every one of us missed out on key celebrations or milestones of some kind, including vacations, graduations, marriages and births. Many of us also experienced more significant losses, including deaths and divorces, or financial strain and loss of jobs or businesses or housing. Our young people endured incredible stress, schooling from home without the peer interaction they crave, and their parents survived even more intense stress, managing work and schooling and normal household duties. The list goes on and on, and it is critical that we take a moment to acknowledge that grief, name it, and recognize the emotions we have from our own experience over the past months.
But an important second step is to also acknowledge the incredible resiliency we have collectively shown in this challenging time. Despite all of these hardships, we have mostly persevered. We have shown our adaptability and our internal strength in the ways we continued onward: working, doing online school, zooming with our relatives, and creating innovative safe social gatherings. At the start of the pandemic, the Behavioral Health Department was terrified that we would see skyrocketing numbers of people in mental health crisis, including huge numbers of hospitalizations and people struggling with suicide. In fact, our county numbers in all of these areas stayed lower than what we normally see. This is not to discount the experience of anyone who struggled with their mental health in recent months, or specifically struggled with feeling suicidal. But it is also to remind us of the hopefulness of our ongoing human capacity to be creative and resilient in the face of difficult times.
The third, and perhaps most important step in this journey back to “normal,” is to remember that human connection is one of the most powerful strategies for good mental health. Over the past year, virtually all of us experienced feeling lonely or disconnected at some point, or maybe for very long stretches. Rebuilding the muscle memory of how to connect, how to interact, is one of the most important things we each need to focus on in this transition period. Perhaps start small – reach out to your most trusted friends or family, engage in one on one conversations. As you feel more comfortable, (and as vaccination status and rules allow), pull together small groups for a shared meal or gathering. And as you begin reinvesting in your social world, think about who in your life might find this particular transition to be more challenging. Who might be feeling more disconnected, might need some extra support or reassurance – that metaphorical hand to hold? It has never been more important to come together and support each other as a community.
Lastly, the mental health impacts of this year may still be felt for months. In the short term that may show up as feelings of anxiety or sadness as we process our grief or work through this transition chapter. Over the longer term, some of us might have ongoing feelings of depression or may find ourselves drinking more than normal. Please remember that there is a big network of professional helpers ready to step in with support when things get too overwhelming. If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, call (530) 265-5811. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to 741741. Trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 to make sure you get the support you need. It’s important to remember that most of us will experience a mental health challenge in our lifetime. It’s ok not to be ok all the time, and it’s ok to ask for help when you need it. For more information on how to support your mental health during this time, visit www.LetsTalkNevadaCounty.org.
But I truly hope that over the upcoming weeks and months, each of us will be able to reconnect with the people and the activities that we love and to once again find the joy and beauty around us. We have together survived an incredibly challenging time, and together we can best transition to this next chapter.