As I write this, New York City is becoming the U.S. epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city is on lockdown, leaders are scrambling trying to contract hotels to house the sick, and applying for waivers and exceptions to get more doctors who can practice across state lines. We are watching an unprecedented humanitarian crisis unfold before our eyes. Yes, we have been through tough times before but the hardships humanity is experiencing during this pandemic are unique.
In a recent article in The Week, David Faris points out that during the aerial bombings in the UK during World War II, people could still get together for dinner parties, dancing, and drinking. They could shelter together underground. “Despite the horrifying nightly carnage, they were not fully cut off from their friends and extended families at all times,” he writes.
Faris wonders, “just how much isolation the human psyche can bear?”
That is a question that weighs heavily on our minds at Stop Soldier Suicide, and it’s a question to which we don’t really want an answer. We already know what happens to prisoners who are subjected to solitary confinement, and we are well informed about what happens when people are cut off from each other for an extended period. As Faris points out, it doesn’t take long for a host of psychological problems such as panic attacks, depression, and thoughts of self-harm to manifest.
Veterans and Service Members at Increased Risk
In addition to the physical isolation necessary to slow the spread of the virus, a non-stop negative news cycle, bleak economic forecast, and heightened anxieties create heightened risks for our clients. Veterans and service members who are already at-risk for suicide will be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout in the coming months.
While it makes sense for leaders to focus on the challenges of social distancing to protect people from the physical threats of the virus, the fallout problem is going to be mental health impacts weeks and months from now. There will be a lot more fear and anxiety. More and more families will be affected by deaths and may be isolated with their grief. It will get worse before it gets better. We must think about how we will deal with the tidal wave of mental health challenges headed our way.
The Luxury of Foresight
We didn’t have the luxury of foresight with 9/11. New York City was incredibly strong in the immediate aftermath, but there was considerable mental health degradation in the months that followed. People are resilient in the short term, but as the pandemic gets more personal, it will take a massive toll. While medical personnel, first responders, and other unsung heroes scramble to keep the country as physically healthy as possible, mental health shouldn’t be an afterthought.
This imperative comes at a time when mental health, especially men’s mental health, is still a taboo topic in America. I want to give a shout out to Harry’s Inc. for the great work they’re doing to eradicate that stigma. It’s imperative that we follow their lead.
Apart but not Distant
Those of us in the business of helping people achieve and maintain good mental health must be vigilant, and we must get ready for the need that’s coming. At the community level, leaders in business and government need to be more forward-looking. What can we be thinking about now that will save lives 90 days from now?
We must find new ways to leverage tech to our advantage at a time when the world has never been more hyper-connected than it is today. We need to stay connected to each other, to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. Thanks to technology, we can be physically distant but socially connected. That wasn’t possible 20 years ago.
Checking in on Each Other
I wrote that those of us in the business of mental health must be vigilant, but there’s an argument to be made that all of us are in that business now. First, we each need to protect our mental health by limiting exposure to negativity and news, staying busy and positive, eating well, exercising every day, and getting enough sleep. During my exit interview from my 1-year tour in Iraq, the doctor told me it was important that I check in with people who know me well to see if I was okay. She said that my family and friends would probably spot red flags before I did. Even if you feel like you’re coping, check in with people who know you well to see if you’re okay.
Second, we have to watch out for each other and speak up; stigmas be damned. Someone you care about may already be experiencing mental health degradation. They may not even realize it. Be aware that everybody experiences mental health issues in different ways. Watch for signs that your kids, partner, friends, or battle buddies aren’t acting like they usually do. Loss of interest, reckless behavior, being unusually distracted, too anxious to relax, and highly irritable are all signs that they aren’t coping well. Also, watch for increased drug or alcohol use.
Having a bird’s eye view of the root causes of suicide, I cannot tell you how important it is right now that you check in with single friends and people who live alone. A text, an email, even a friendly sidewalk-to-porch exchange can be a lifeline.
Let’s not find out how much isolation the human psyche can bear.
It’s true that we are facing an undetermined period of physical separation necessary to keep each other alive and well. We must reach out however we can through technology or other creative methods to maintain our bonds.
We know that a tidal wave of mental health challenges is coming. Now is the time to anticipate, plan, and put new systems in place to help our veterans, and each other, come out the other side of this crisis with hope and purpose intact.
20-year Air Force Veteran and Stop Soldier Suicide CEO