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Has COVID-19 created a new-found understanding of complex mental health issues?

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Has there been another topic of conversation over the past few weeks besides coronavirus? Gone is the simple “Hey, how are you?” replaced by “How are you coping?” and “Are you staying sane?”. It’s that last one that gets me. And I’m just as guilty as others because I’ve heard myself ask a version of that very question: “How are you dealing, in amongst the crazy?”.

The very stigma that I, and many braver, smarter and more educated people have been working to address for so long is, in a strange way, coming to the fore and shifting in front of us, thanks to the omnipresent coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve heard people talk about their own mental health, and their need to look after it, more than ever before. And I can’t applaud loudly enough the fact that the subject is being given the air play it deserves, in a way that resonates with so many.

I’ve also heard people say – to me, and in the media – that they have a newfound understanding of anxiety and depression because they are experiencing it for the first time themselves. On face value, I find myself wanting to cheer. Not because I wish hardship on anyone. But because as humans, sometimes we learn best by firsthand experience.

I find myself wondering: wouldn’t it be a positive outcome of this horrendous situation, if more people developed a genuine understanding of what it’s like to be gripped and groped by emotions beyond rational explanation?

At the same time, I urge people to be cautious. As someone who has been living with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, the suggestion that someone now ‘gets it’ because they feel out of control for the first time, worry to an unacceptable level, or are stressed in a different way? It verges on hurtful.

Don’t get me wrong, those emotions are very real and must be respected and managed appropriately. But while doing so, there’s an opportunity to learn more. To understand the differences between the challenges this pandemic creates for almost everyone, and what life is like for people who feel those intense emotions every day.

Perhaps one way to look at it is that, for some of us, it feels like we’re always living through a pandemic of some kind. It’s just that the rest of the world doesn’t realise it. That trepidation and fear so many people are feeling now, for the first time, is something we’re living with all the time.

The fact that so many people are conscious of each other’s mental state and are checking in with each other is beautiful to witness. I’ve been in touch with friends I haven’t chatted to for ages; I’ve video chatted with cousins halfway across the world; I’ve video chatted at all (I’m not old, just late to the party).

I haven’t done so out of boredom, but rather a genuine need and want to reach out and check in. A need borne from these new feelings of sadness, helplessness, fear. A need, on some level, to see if I can help people navigate their newfound stress by sharing what I’ve learned through navigating my age-old stress.

Checking in, or being checked in on, has never meant more. When I was really sick (in-and-out-of-psychiatric hospital-sick) people didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know what to ask, or how to be around me. Many said nothing at all. With COVID-19, we’ve all been given permission to check in on each other because everyone is struggling to a lesser or greater extent.

There’s a new understanding, or at least so it seems. It’s actually ok for people to say they’re struggling. Because they have a reason that is easily understandable. Anxiety and depression may not be all that well understood by people who don’t live with them, but perhaps now there will be a new conversation: “You know that way you felt stuck at home during lockdown, not knowing when things were going to get any better? That’s what my life is like every day.”

When everything is changing, and everything seems different, it’s hard to feel centred. It’s hard to feel grounded. It’s hard to remember that there are so many things that remain just as they always were. A phone call, a text message – they are still there. Love and connection is still very much there.

When people say, “we’re in this together”, I couldn’t agree more. I’d also add – that doesn’t mean you necessarily understand what is going on inside me, and vice versa. But we are experiencing this pandemic together, and we can reach out and check in on each other.

Our compassion can grow and the stigma associated with what we’re going through can, perhaps, wane. You can be there for me; I can be there for you. We’re still different, and we always will be. And we can be there for each other.

Guest blog by Lisa, SANE Peer Ambassador

If you (or someone you know) needs support - the SANE Help Centre is open from Monday - Friday, 10am - 10pm AEST. Our team of counsellors are available by phone, web chat and email, so you can comfortably communicate in the way that feels best for you.

We can provide you with counselling, support, information and referrals, and we specialise in assisting adults who identify as having a complex mental health issue, complex trauma or high levels of psychological distress.

We also provide support to the family or friends that care about these people.

Click to visit the SANE Help Centre now.

If you'd like to chat with other people who understand what you're going through, the SANE Forums are online 24/7. There's one Forum for Lived Experience, and another for family, friends or carers. The Forums are anonymous, and moderated by health professionals, to keep the conversation safe and supportive.

Click to visit the SANE Forums now.

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