The pandemic has transformed how we think and talk about mental health, particularly as more people have developed chronic stress, anxiety and other issues over the last year.
Of the more than 500,000 people who took a depression screening between March and September 2020, around 8 in 10 people scored with symptoms of moderate to severe depression, according to a 2021 report released by Mental Health America. The survey also found that more participants reported frequent thoughts of self-harm or suicide, and symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety. Further, research has shown that the pandemic has greatly affected the mental health of communities across the globe, including frontline health workers and COVID-19 survivors.
“Even if you have managed to keep your jobs and relationships intact, and have not previously had a mental health diagnosis, there are still many challenges to maintaining good emotional regulation when there is such uncertainty about the future,” said Noel Bell, a psychotherapist and a spokesperson for the U.K. Council for Psychotherapy.
Circumstances such as isolating lockdowns and job insecurity have contributed to the emotional toll of the pandemic. Yet, not everyone reacts to stressful circumstances in the same way. HuffPost spoke with 12 people about how their mental health has changed during the pandemic, at times in surprising ways. (Note: Some people requested to withhold their last names in order to speak freely about their mental health or personal situations.)
‘Obviously these were things that had been hanging out in the back of my mind for a long time, but the pandemic just amplified it.’
Jordan Stumph, 25, a community outreach coordinator, said the health restrictions put into place over the past year not only seemed to exacerbate symptoms of her bipolar disorder, but they also triggered new health issues and fears of being near people.
“During the pandemic, I was also diagnosed with [complex] PTSD and have started treatment for anxiety,” Stumph said. “Obviously, these were things that had been hanging out in the back of my mind for a long time, but the pandemic just amplified it.”
‘I’ve been able to focus on myself.’
“I feel like my mental health has improved because I’ve had more time to work at it. I have had depression and anxiety since my early adulthood, and always brushed it under the rug. Now, I’ve been able to focus on myself and create self-care regimens that help quell my anxiety and depression,” said Shanelle McKenzie, 33, co-founder of the wellness community The Villij. “My hope above all is to be able to work from home much more than I did in the past to help keep this all up.”
‘I used to fill my time with activities because I couldn’t bear to feel.’
As someone living with depression and an eating disorder, Francesca Baker, 33, worried that the lockdowns would worsen her mental health. Instead, the pandemic has given her more time to focus on habits and routines — such as meal planning — that supported her recovery.
“I used to fill my time with activities because I couldn’t bear to feel. That’s been harder [to do] in lockdown, but it’s actually been OK,” said Baker, a copywriter and marketer. “I’ve become more at ease with downtime, which is much better for my well-being.”
‘The unpredictability of the whole situation has really started to take its toll on my mental health.’
“In the beginning of the pandemic, my anxiety levels went through the roof, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle with my coping mechanisms that I had worked out in therapy. However, the unpredictability of the whole situation has really started to take its toll on my mental health toward the end of last year,” said Babett Kürschner, a 23-year-old public relations student.
Over the past few months, Kürschner has gotten creative in finding coping strategies to deal with the new waves of heightened anxiety. While she hopes her anxiety levels will return to baseline once people are allowed to safely engage in more activities, she also hopes her “new outlook on dealing with uncertainty is here to stay.”
‘I was very accustomed to living my life in a certain way.’
The pandemic swiftly changed Katie Hull’s day-to-day life as a 27-year-old student at the University of Sunderland in England, which has affected her mental health.
“I was very accustomed to living my life in a certain way. I enjoyed attending university classes, but this was taken away. I find myself regularly in a room staring at the same walls,” Hull said. “I do not think that we will ever return to the normalization of January 2020. We have to remember that millions of people have died, and I doubt anyone wants to go through another 12 months of heartbreak.”
‘The pandemic ... has reduced the anxiety around having to constantly defend my boundaries.’
For Jennifer, 42, who is self-employed, the past year has actually had a positive impact on some aspects of her mental health. In particular, it has alleviated some anxiety around relationships with her relatives.
“The pandemic has taken the pressure off me to show up to family functions, which has reduced the anxiety around having to constantly defend my boundaries,” she said.
‘The ups and downs of financial instability made things worse.’
Hailey F., a 30-year-old artist, said her mental health has both improved and worsened throughout the pandemic.
“I was let go from my job, and having extra time to deal with my ups and downs has made it easier,” she said. “It got worse because I was unsure of how bad this virus was going to be, and honestly having Donald Trump as a president was like being in an abusive relationship. The ups and downs of financial instability made things worse as well.”
‘I am already frightened of going outside. I’m afraid of going to see other people in case I catch COVID.’
“I already suffered with anxiety and low mood before the pandemic, but it has gotten worse since the first lockdown,” said Megan Laura Harris, a 19-year-old undergraduate student, adding that she had to reach out for mental health help. “The restrictions have really affected me, and I believe that this will stay with me after the pandemic has ended. I am already frightened of going outside. I’m afraid of going to see other people in case I catch COVID.”
Harris said listening to music and going for daily walks has helped her cope over the past year.
‘I’m hoping that once things start to return to the new normal, I’ll look at things that I took for granted in a new light.’
Like the majority of graduating college students in 2020, 22-year-old freelance journalist Lexi Shannon was unable to celebrate her achievement and entered a competitive job market.
“I felt that my past four years of undergrad were inevitably leading me down a dead end, which took a huge toll on my mental health. I was already dealing with the stress and pressure of graduating from college, and being thrown into an industry with no open jobs made it hard for me to look at my future in a positive light,” Shannon said. “I’m hoping that once things start to return to the new normal, I’ll look at things that I took for granted in a new light and use that to help me grow mentally.”
‘Trauma from isolation and aloneness has been culminating this winter in ways that I’ll need to work through for years.’
“In March 2020, I was about to find queer and trans community for the first time in my four decades, just when my schedule was going to free up. The global pandemic hitting the USA stopped that,” said Em Rabelais, 42. “I spent most of the pandemic living alone.”
“Last week after waiting two weeks after my second COVID vaccine dose, I was able to pod in with a friend,” Rabelais continued. “While this is helpful, 10 months of increasing daily trauma from isolation and aloneness has been culminating this winter in ways that I’ll need to work through for years.”
‘You realize you are not the only one going through this.’
Sheena Yap Chan, 39, said she struggled to cope in the first few months of the pandemic, and ended up spending much of her time doomscrolling through the news cycle. However, she explained her mental health began to improve over the summer as she utilized her platform to build a community for others in need of extra support.
“I create Clubhouse chat rooms where people can express their issues of mental health and bring awareness about the topic of mental health because it’s still a stigma in so many cultures,” said Yap Chan, an author and podcaster on building self-confidence. “Just by creating a safe space where you can share your mental health challenges can also be a healing process. You feel a lot better because you realize you are not the only one going through this.”
‘I’ve been journaling throughout my mental health breakdown and my recovery, which has allowed me to gain more clarity and focus.’
“I was working in hospitality marketing, facing some really tough challenges during the lockdown. I was overworked, tired and dealing with a lot of personal pressures,” said Chloe Tomalin, 25, a marketing and branding consultant. She left her job and sought acute treatment for her mental health.
“I’ve been journaling throughout my mental health breakdown and my recovery, which has allowed me to gain more clarity and focus,” Tomalin said. “The pandemic has also allowed me to have time to reflect on my personal and professional development without the pressure of FOMO.”
If you do find yourself becoming increasingly anxious, depressed, or withdrawn from your daily activities, “it is important to seek help, and not to think that your problem is not serious enough,” said Bell, the spokesperson for the U.K. Council for Psychotherapy.
It may have been just over a year since most major cities around the world went into their first lockdowns, but people are still trying to figure out how to cope with pandemic-related stress. After all, there is no mental health guidebook to living through this kind of global health crisis. So practicing a little self-compassion can go a long way in protecting your mental health during unpredictable times.