As you may know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This is not a new development; in fact, it’s an annual designation, albeit one many of us probably don’t give a moment of thought to, assuming we are even aware that it’s ‘a thing.’
One difference this year is that mental health is becoming a much more frequent topic of conversation in the media and likely with people in our own lives. Simply stated, this is an issue impacting an increasing number of people across all age groups.
Without question, the data from sources including the CDC and NAMI (National Association of Mental Health) is conclusive in revealing that the past two years of life in the Covid pandemic have had far-reaching implications on mental health. When we think about a pandemic, it’s natural to focus on the medical implications of it, such as sickness and the mortality rate, while overlooking the fact that a pandemic also carries a full range of psychological aspects that can be catastrophic in their own right.
Looking back to 2020, specifically the months following March, it’s easy to see how the clouds were forming in our collective psyche; clouds that could only result in a rough storm that would stick around for a while. Initially, we stayed home by choice, to avoid this unknown virus. In the following weeks, secluding ourselves wasn’t much of a choice. Schools closed, office work went remote and our normal recreational activities were cancelled. Restaurants, entertainment venues and our regular social gathering places were all off limits in order to help break the chain of transmission.
While all of these policies and enforcements were in place to serve the greatest good, the result was widespread and prolonged isolation from society at large, and also most of the people in our lives except for immediate family and close friends in our ‘covid pods.’ For many people, this ‘lockdown’ period was accompanied by a mixed emotion of boredom and fear, fueled largely by news and social media. Often, social media was doing double duty of also serving as news, although the accuracy and validity of the information varied wildly and, in many cases, raised the thermostat on the ambient fear level.
Fast forward two years to the present day, and it’s apparent that for many people the mental health effects either brought on or intensified by Covid have not dissipated. While there has not been a comprehensive national mental health study done in 2022 by any of the federal agencies, the prevailing wisdom and combined data from independent studies show some distressing statistics about the state of mental wellness in the U.S.
According to the NAMI research, approximately 1 in 5 (21 percent of) adults have been diagnosed or are living with undiagnosed/untreated mental illness. This situation is not limited to adults; teens’ mental health data is even bleaker. The CDC reports that four out of 10 (40 percent) of teens report feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.” (“CDC warns of a steep decline in teen mental health” – The Washington Post) In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health in October 2021.
This declaration was based on its members “caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families and their communities.”
For a compelling read on the mental health crisis related to adolescents and teens, I highly recommend reading the excellent multi-part series written by Matt Richtel, who spent a year interviewing teens’ and their families. (“‘It’s Life or Death’: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens” – The New York Times)
My goal is not to be the bearer of bad news, but instead to keep with the theme of this month in creating some additional awareness on the topic of mental health.
I don’t need to tell you that there is no quick and easy solution to this problem, but what I can suggest is readily within your reach and costs you nothing. Simply check in with the people close to you, especially those you have lost touch with since Covid started and that you assumed just got busy doing other things. Perhaps they have. Or it’s also possible they have been busy losing contact with many people in their lives, and their feelings of isolation have only worsened with the idea that “everyone is getting back to normal except for me.”
Loneliness is a subjective thing. It’s the gap between the feeling of connectedness you have and the amount of connectedness you want. While some people are perfectly content with limited social interaction, others struggle with ‘relaunching’ and finding their way back to the social routines and network they had leading up to Covid.
Here’s another suggestion. Do yourself a huge favor regarding mental health spring cleaning and do a ‘social media cleanse.’ I’ve written about social media before, in the context of how much time we could gain per week if we stopped the scrolling, but it’s worth a reminder as the screen time continues to devour our time. Forbes recently published an article with a startling number. In 2021, Americans spent an average of 1,300 hours on social media. Divide that by 365 days, and you get an average of 3.5 hours per day spent on social media. Sounds crazy, right?
What’s done is done with how much time we have already spent, but history is not destiny, and we can start breaking that cycle today. I’m not suggesting you go cold turkey and permanently delete Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok all at once (although more power to you if you’re ready to go big!) What I do propose though, is that you take a break for a defined period, even if it’s as short as a week, and get off the hamster wheel of constantly spending a good chunk of your waking hours posting and scrolling on social media platforms.
I’ll credit my friend Matt Hagy for the suggestion and reminder on how powerful a ‘social media detox’ can be. Matt did a ‘social media free challenge’ a few months ago. He described to me what a fantastic experience it was and how it did not take long to start recognizing the significant impact and benefits that come from getting off the grid of the social sites.
In no particular order, here’s a ‘Top 5 reasons’ list supporting the idea of a social media break, all aimed at increasing your mental health and wellness:
- Get present in the present. When we’re conditioned to look at everything we experience as a possible social media post, we’re sacrificing the actual enjoyment of the moment for what it is. Sometimes the best part of a sunset can just be watching the sunset, as opposed to focusing on getting the perfect picture and filtering for optimal ‘likes.’
- Stop comparing yourself to other people. At the risk of stating the obvious, social media is often a very carefully assembled view of someone’s life that is curated to highlight all the really fantastic stuff. That’s not a normal reality! If you immerse yourself in looking at the highlight reel of somebody else’s life, minus all the standard ‘typical Tuesday’ moments that are less than glamourous, you can’t help but feel like your own life isn’t measuring up. Teddy Roosevelt had it right: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
- Improve your mood. Counterintuitively, these apps that we use for the purpose of enjoyment can actually make us feel worse over time. A lot of it has to do with the comparison aspect, but there is also the element that there is a ton of negative stuff on social media, and moods are contagious, positive or negative. When we immerse ourselves in these often toxic comment streams and postings, it takes a toll on us. You probably wouldn’t want to sit on your couch and repeatedly snap a mouse trap on your finger, because it’s painful. Social sites can be damaging as well, but the difference is we don’t feel the pain immediately. The damage can be slow and steady, and increases in depression and low self-esteem are commonly linked to social sites, going back to early studies on Facebook usage.
- Miss out on FOMO. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a real thing. We are wired this way from our ancient ancestors. They knew if the group cast them out, they wouldn’t get food from the day’s hunt or have their choice sleeping spot in the cave. Generally speaking, we don’t like to be excluded, and it hurts when we feel like we are. So why do we repeatedly choose to look at other people’s photo feeds when we know for a fact that we were not in them? It’s an overpowering temptation to see what everyone is up to, and of course, the technology is terrific that allows us to see in real-time the life activities of people we think about most often. That said, it’s a short bridge for us to navigate to other timelines and torture ourselves with things we were not included in, which brings nothing positive. For example, this is aimed at parents or with young people in your lives. Are you aware that Snapchat has Snap Maps that your son/daughter can look at to see where all their friends are at any given moment based on their phone’s location? Think about how much of a bummer on a Friday night if your son didn’t get any texts but sees on Snap Maps that five of his friends are all together at someone’s house or hanging out at Promenade.
- Give yourself the ultimate gift…time! As you know, time is the thing you can’t buy, and the clock only runs one way. Time is our most precious and fleeting resource, and too often we don’t realize we are running low until we’ve already spent most of it. Do an experiment and keep track of the responses of the next five people you ask: “how are you doing?” My prediction is a minimum of three people will respond with some variation of ‘busy.'(Crazy busy, super busy, nonstop, running around, keeping busy, etc.) A common sentiment I hear is: “Super busy, but I’m hoping things calm down soon.” Hope is not a strategy, and for the most part we will stay in a similar pattern until we identify a way to change it and take the required steps to alter our routine and habit loop.
Busy and productive are two very different things, and ‘busy’ is often a byproduct of trying to fit too many low-value tasks into too few hours. When we can gain additional time, possibly hours, into our day by reducing or eliminating the social media component, we can then add the high-value priorities into our daily schedule.
These are the things related to our main focus areas of big goals and main priorities. These are the goals and objectives that help elevate your life, and allow you to reach your full potential and become the version of yourself that you always envisioned. I’ve yet to see any social media site that can make that promise!
About the Author
Eric Bartosz is the founder of BAR40 and the author of the internationally acclaimed and bestselling book ‘BAR40: Achieving Personal Excellence.’ He lives in Center Valley with his wife Trish, daughter Riley and pug Piper, is an adjunct MBA professor at DeSales University and serves the community as an Upper Saucon firefighter, a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lehigh Valley and a local race organizer. Eric is a 20+ year runner and racer and can often be found logging miles on the Saucon Rail Trail.