With progress in efforts for Covid-19 vaccines and predictions for when the population will receive them, there seems to be a light at the end of the long, harrowing pandemic tunnel.
As the physical risks are better managed with vaccines, however, what will likely still remain is the indelible impact of the pandemic weighing on the collective psyche.
“The physical aspects of the pandemic are really visible,” said Lisa Carlson, the immediate past president of the American Public Health Association and an executive administrator at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “We have supply shortages and economic stress, fear of illness, all of our disrupted routines, but there’s a real grief in all of that.”
“We don’t have a vaccine for our mental health like we do for our physical health,” Carlson added. “So, it will take longer to come out of those challenges.”
Based on the mental struggles endured by so many this year, these are the issues mental health professionals anticipate coming to the fore in 2021.
Burnout and sedentism
Life was stressful before the pandemic, but new challenges have contributed an additional toll. Virtual homeschooling, staying safe, financial hardships, teleworking, keeping up with new information and coping with sickness and death can make life feel like a never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole.
Isolation, which can lead to loneliness, has hit people of all ages. Many children and adolescents have been missing out on opportunities important for social development.
How you manage the stress is crucial to finding respite from the pandemic, Carlson said, and it comes back to the basics. Being safely outdoors and around trees, which Carlson thinks of “as part of the public health team,” can improve your overall health. When you can, take time to wind down and disconnect from the news.
Focusing “on the basics to get sleep, to eat healthy meals, to move throughout the day, to spend time with pets and loved ones” are going to be critically important, she added. “Taking care of ourselves and each other should be everybody’s focus as we go into 2021.”
When the pandemic sabotages sleep
Since more time at home has meant more snoozing for some, the strange “pandemic dreams” people chattered about this year have greater opportunities to pop up, said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a pulmonary and sleep doctor and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.
Stress, trauma and new challenges are other factors that have led to sleep disturbances and disorders. People on the frontlines of health care, those who witnessed death and individuals who were stuck on cruise ships may experience post-traumatic stress that can lead to insomnia and nightmares. “There are things that you see that are just etched in your mind,” Dasgupta said.
Lack of separation between work and home can mean irregular sleeping patterns. The pandemic “really threw a curveball in our circadian rhythm,” he added.