Pandemic mental health crisis: a story of missing out

I press stop and rewind, finally deciding on a frame on my phone screen. There, on my tiny know-it-all device, all of my old high school classmates, all dressed up fancy, are singing and dancing. It’s our high school senior prom; I laugh at one of my friends who raises his glass half-full at the camera. It’s 2017 and there are no masks in sight. 

It’s 2021 as I write this. There is a crumbled disposable mask left on my study desk. I was too lazy to throw it away when I arrived home. It must be my mental health deteriorating slowly but the thought of doing anything exhausts me.

It’s not surprising.

The Office for National Statistics reports that the proportion of adults experiencing some form of depression from July 2019 to March 2020 was 10%. This number doubled in the pandemic (19% in June 2020).

To assess mental health, CDC conducted surveys among adults aged ≥18 across the United States during June 24–30, 2020. Overall, 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder.

“The pandemic period brought various fronts of action, generally having a different impact depending on the sensitivities of each person,” psychologist Andreea Macovei tells me.

People continue experiencing things differently, of course, even in a pandemic. But we are all tired, worn-out and confined in our apartments. It leads us to have our mental health decline, no matter how little.

Fear of death, illness, pain, suffering, the fear of losing loved ones, time, opportunities, travel. Whatever the reason, Andreea continues, it would be this limitation that does not allow you to live as you wish. Although you may not have travelled much so far, the fact that someone or something is stopping you from doing it makes you much more aware that it is no longer an option at hand.

The fear of missing out

In a survey that evaluates how mental health has changed due to COVID-19 conducted from June to August 2020 among 130 countries across WHO’s six regions, over 60% reported disruptions.

“The fear of losing opportunities is one of the fears that changes us. We begin to realize that not everything is in our hands. One of the most important skills to have is to know how to adapt. Resistance to change, in some cases more severe, can lead to psychosis and mental illness.”

Andreea Macovei, psychologist

Ana, a college student in her last year, tells me the fear of missing out was the one fear that had the most impact on her. “I adapted to the other things as much as I could.” But the one thing she misses the most is being out with her friends, enjoying herself and meeting new people. 

Ana thinks that after a long, intense period of only socializing online that made us more anti-social, the fear of missing out increased.

Are emergent adults going extinct?

Emerging adulthood is a developmental stage taking place between adolescence and young adulthood, ages 18-25. Psychologist Alex Naroș defines it as ”a time of fragility, pressure, confusion, stress, and instability. The existing ambivalence “partly grown up, partly youthful” represents the underlying principle of the emerging adulthood stage”. It is a crucial period that defines our adult life quality because people need to explore before commitment. And if they don’t, they might believe their life path was simply inertia. For their mental health to be stable, people should know it is more of a decision.

That is because the main focus is on the future and on the dreams that people have, and to put a lot of energy into making choices that will help someone gain full adult status in the eyes of others. Therefore, ”During this stage, young adults get the opportunity to know themselves better, and society and peer feedback, both positive and negative, play a significant role in their development,” Alex says. This stage is supported by the fact that people go to university, move out, make preferential relationships and feel independent, even though they do not have complete autonomy. This is the time when parents support you, but you make your own decisions. The pandemic left us with fewer chances of emerging. Most of the students take courses off-site, with fewer opportunities to be on their own. 

Emerging adulthood was a reaction to the technological and sexual revolution, feminism and youth movement, once higher education became accessible and marriage was delayed. Now, it is a developmental stage paused by a global pandemic. How will people who skipped this stage fit in a society that did not? For now, all we are left with is this question.

”Isolation, the lack of intimacy, or the inability to explore existing opportunities, especially in the times like this (Covid-19) will inevitably have a crucial negative effect on emerging adulthood as we know it…”

Psychologist Alex Naroș

A story of highs and lows

In a Fair Health Report, comparing August 2019 to August 2020 in the Northeast, for the age group 13-18, there was a 333.93% increase in intentional self-harm claim lines. For that age group, this was the highest rate ever.

From both her personal and therapy-related experiences and from discussing with those close to her, Andreea states that this pandemic affected people differently. “Indeed, any suffering feels stronger at this time due to loneliness and limited human interactions.”

Ana used to have many contrasting moments, both high and low, before the pandemic. Only the high ones were when she used to go out with her friends or something out of the ordinary happened. “Because I didn’t have those moments to cling to anymore, my moods changed from bad to worse.”

Since everything happened so fast and unpredictable, most of us couldn’t develop coping mechanisms in time to actually cope with the new situation. “Before this,” Ana tells me, “I didn’t have anxiety at all. But now I have moments when I’m in my bedroom, I’m not doing anything special and yet I’m stressed and anxious.”

“Depression and anxiety begin to develop more when the individual is exposed to trauma and prolonged stress.”

Andreea Macovei

There are various unexplained reactions from the individual as a reaction to the accumulated stress, Andreea tells me. “It is important to know that even a person without any symptoms, under the right conditions, can develop psychological disorders.”

People’s pandemics

Adelina – A young story of emptiness

Being in your final year of high school might not be the best time to experience a pandemic. Stress, exams, university applications and changes still happen, while the entire world is paused. Yet, you have to find ways to cope. Adelina chose to be productive, focus on studying and escape by keeping her head busy. This seems ideal for a time, but what comes next? Emptiness. Tricking mental health by not paying attention to the effects of a pandemic has an end. And it might kick harder when it reaches you. “After the exams were over, something clicked. In the first semester of university there was a feeling of bitterness mixed with enthusiasm, but with the arrival of the second… I’ve gotten worse.” When there is nothing left to look forward to, every day is the same. But you have to keep trying. 

“Every day there was a kind of fight to convince myself that this was a good day. I would wake up every day extremely demoralized, unmotivated and sad but I would quickly try to remove those feelings and address some kind of toxic positivism (Just because I didn’t know what to do, I felt like I tried them all).”

Adelina managed to escape the loop once the season changed. “Now I’m better, especially than there’s more sun and I’ve come to my house, to the country, and I can get outside.” Seeing the sun again was a relief – both physically and mentally. But we should keep in mind that the mental effects of the pandemic might be seen later from now on.

“I can really say that I went from motivation and positivism to a sense of completeness, but COMPLETE emptiness. I couldn’t even convince myself to get out of bed, I felt like there was no point, considering that my day was repeated over and over again.”

Răzvan – To be happy before

Feeling strong gives the impression that you can easily handle everything. You are balanced, happy, with healthy relationships and strong goals. The chances of your mental health decreasing are lower, right? An exception – a pandemic. We cannot argue that a global event like that hit everyone, at their own pace. Răzvan felt invincible before, but accepted that he was vulnerable too. 

“Although I thought that nothing could bring down my morale, the pandemic managed to place me in a horizon devoid of any hope of returning to harmony. Meetings with the people I love were reduced to conversations through a small screen, proving his inability to playback the excitement generated by the best friend’s goodbye or the hug of grandma.”

Grandmas deserve to be talked about. Waking up in a world where love means distance, might have been the hardest for them.

Our routines have completely changed. We are no longer able to do what made us happy before. This sounds scary even without pre-existing mental health issues. For Răzvan, daily happiness stopped for a while and is still waiting for its comeback.  

“The social distance so recommended only distanced me from my pleasures, any activity that in the past would have made me happy suddenly became prosaic. Some moments will never be recovered.”

The illusion of a loop appeared again. Without moving outside, it is hard to realize the growing inside.

“This pandemic must have robotized me to some extent – the days no longer differ from each other, are algorithmically carried out, no longer have any spark. I’m out of my mind…”

Georgiana – A story of missing therapy

At a first glance, for some people, the pandemic did not appear as frightening as it turned out to be. Predictability is something crucial in determining if an event we experience is a stressor. Who doesn’t love an unexpected holiday? Is a year-long pandemic as lovable? Not having control, major changes, inner conflicts and low predictability are predictors of stress, which eventually can cause anxiety and depression. 

At first, I was not really scared of the pandemic. I knew I could prevent the disease. But things were, after all, more complicated than I expected”, Georgiana tells me. She and her mother moved to grandma’s house. “I was, before the pandemic, an anxious person and went to therapy every week. For two months, my mental state was deeply affected. The fact that I was alone, with no friends to see, without going for a walk outside, without going to therapy, without changing my clothes, led to slow and safe degradation.” The crisis begins when even therapy is dangerous. She gave up watching the news, but it did not help much. For those vulnerable, missing out on opportunities meant therapy. 

“I was constantly feeling something in my chest, tiredness that didn’t let me sleep at night. For no obvious reason, I was afraid of the dark, of my heart beating too fast, challenged to sleep and to stop controlling my breath.”

She eventually got better. She told me it felt like escaping from a cage of thoughts in monotonous loneliness. It gave her time to accept her fears. We must search for healing in a crisis.

David – A back-and-forth story

When you are used to being active all day long, feeling trapped inside is challenging. David, whose second nature is sport, went for alternatives – “ I had to find new occupations in order to get through this period. I started pedaling my home bike 2 hours a day, finished a puzzle of 1000 pieces and kept on working out in my living room.” After all, human beings are adaptive.

But some changes hit harder than others.

David moved out of the country for university. In a global pandemic. Alone. 

“Starting college in the UK was a difficult step, being alone because of the quarantine that was mandatory when entering the country. The day the rest of the country’s native students came, I saw many parents who helped with luggage and worried about making everything perfect for their children.” We were raised thinking our loved ones will be near us during important times. 2020 was a game-changer. Going through unexpected times alone weakens mental health. For some, it stimulates independence, but for others, it only sharpens stress. “I spent three months without coming home, only coming back for the Christmas holidays.”

Denisa Medical care sabotages health

Along with the pandemic, the health system suffered changes. The fear of hospital infection grew fast, but it has been harder for those already sick. Denisa had the HPV virus developed at her vocal cords, but her surgery for  laryngeal papillomatosis was postponed for 4 months. “In those months, I was calling the doctors, looking for hospitals that were allowed to perform surgeries, because I woke up at night without air, so badly the papillomas developed. But nothing”, she told me. The pandemic messed up a lot of plans and medical appointments were not an exception. 

“My voice was gone, I could only whisper, I had panic attacks, I woke up suffocated, stressed, not knowing anything about how things were going to be. I thought I was going to die. It was an experience I never want to relive and that has definitely made its mark on my mental health.

She eventually got her surgery and started recovery. Later, she faced a string of disappointments. After the first lockdown, we were all expecting the virus spreading to reduce, but it was not the case. Government decisions had a striking impact on her. She was supposed to go to college, so she rented an apartment with her friend just to find out that in the first year the teaching will be online. 

“Any announcement like that felt like a return from the road of freedom. I felt like a mouse in a cage, a person on an electric chair who is given shock after shock. I don’t want to get used to it.” 

A story of why we should keep going

“The environment in which we live influences our way of thinking, acting, and developing various defense mechanisms,” psychologist Andreea Macovei concludes. It’s normal to feel anxious, depressed, stuck and that we are missing out on things. Our life stopped suddenly on a random day in March 2020 and if it takes for you to come up with different coping mechanisms a little longer than usual, nobody could blame you for that.