In 2020, Mental Health Awareness Month takes on a special significance. While the coronavirus pandemic has our complete attention – and rightly so – there’s another topic that’s front and center in everyone’s mind.
It’s a topic that’s directly related to the pandemic: mental health.
Specifically, how stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and the cumulative stress associated with COVID-19 affect our emotional and psychological well-being. There’s a lot to be stressed about right now. There’s the pandemic itself, of course: we worry about loved ones in high-risk categories contracting the illness. There’s the economy: we worry about our jobs, the future of our jobs, and the overall stability of our economic systems, both national and worldwide. Then there’s our children: most of them are going to school online, and we worry they’re falling behind, and how that may affect their future.
Combine these stressors with social isolation, and it’s clear that in addition to establishing good habits related to the physical reality of COVID-19 – handwashing, social distance, face coverings – it’s also imperative to establish healthy, life-affirming habits related to the psychological and emotional realities of life during COVID-19.
That’s where Mental Health Awareness Month comes in.
The non-profit organization Mental Health America (MHA) organized the inaugural Mental Health Awareness Month – also called Mental Health Month (MHM) – in May of 1949. The goal of Mental Health Awareness Month is to raise awareness about the specific needs of people living with mental illness, promote the practice of positive mental health habits in the general population, and offer basic tools that everyone can use to improve their short- and long-term mental health.
This year, these goals are more important than ever.
The Effect of Isolation on Mental Health
Research indicates that social isolation is more dangerous to overall health and wellbeing than most people realize. Social isolation – even perceived social isolation – can lead to:
- Poor sleep quality
- Impaired executive function
- Cognitive decline
- Poor cardiovascular function
- Impaired immunity
But that’s not all. According to Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad of the American Cancer Society:
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of that risk exceeds many leading health indicators.”
That’s a sobering sentence: isolation increases risk of premature mortality. Thankfully, during COVID-19, we’re not truly isolated from our friends and loved ones. Separated, yes, but we’re far from completely cut off. We have modern technology to keep us connected: smartphones and the internet keep us communicating through videoconference, text, email, direct message, and old-fashioned telephone conversations. These connections – and the ability to maintain them – are vital in maintaining our collective health and wellness.
We also have advocacy groups like Mental Health America (MHA) to help us learn about, understand, and navigate the mental health challenges posed by isolation. This year, public awareness about mental health issues is more important than any year in recent memory. That’s why the work of MHA during Mental Health Month (MHM) is essential – and why this year’s theme is helpful for anyone seeking support or help managing COVID-related stress.
Mental Health Month 2020: Tools 2 Thrive
The theme for this year is Tools 2 Thrive. In order to get the message out to as many people as possible, the advocates at MHA created a list of five key steps – their Tools 2 Thrive – all of us can take to safeguard our mental and emotional health.
Have a look at this list, then click here to download, read, and share this information on social media.
Five Tools to Thrive: Mental Health Month 2020
- Own Your Feelings. When you can identify and discuss your emotions, you increase your ability to manage the most difficult ones.
- Look for the Positive. Experts say the best way to find the positive in your life is to start with gratitude. When you can name the things you’re grateful for, positivity will follow.
- Nurture Your Connections. Make sure you stay in touch with family, friends, and peers. Send emails, use the phone, use social media – use anything that helps you connect with the people you love. Talking things out with a friend can lift your mood when you’re down and make a good day even better.
- Remove Toxic Influences. Mental Health Month is the perfect time to identify and remove the toxic influences in your life. Work to name and eliminate toxic habits, toxic people, and toxic patterns of thought.
- Establish New Routines. Shelter in place orders and social distancing guidelines mean most of us have extra time on our hands – time we can fill creating habits that support mental health and wellbeing. This is a good time to revise your approach to food, sleep, exercise, and media use. Think big, but start small: positive change happens over time, and it’s best to make manageable changes you can stick to, rather than big changes that overwhelm you.
These five tools – the Tools 2 Thrive – revolve around personal empowerment. The key to positive mental health lies within each of us. We have the ability to accept and embrace ourselves and our emotions – perfect or imperfect – and take steps to manage our difficulties and improve our daily lives. And we can do more than that: we can share these five steps with people we care about. If we help just one person get through a tough day, or give them access to support they’ve never had, then we consider that a win – for everyone.