Caitlin Tan Published

Mental Health Counselor Discusses One Year Of Pandemic

Mental health as a giant ocean wave

The world is one-year into the COVID-19 pandemic. It has taken a toll on mental health, as four in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders in 2020, up from one in 10 in 2019, according to a U.S. Census survey.

Our Inside Appalachia co-host Caitlin Tan interviewed Carol Smith, a professor of counseling at Marshall University. Smith said that this past year has been tough on a lot of people — regardless of major tragedy or not.

***Editor’s Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Carol Smith: It’s completely normal to feel fried, bored, burned out. You know, feeling antsy, all of those things. Yeah, they’re all completely completely normal. Sit with the feeling. What is it telling you? What is it telling you about your situation? And if you want to, you can create some sort of ritual that expresses that sense of yearning or longing. And go ahead and indulge that for a few minutes, but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time indulging that because that can just make you sadder. I would spend time just saying okay, “Yep, we all feel burned out. Guess what? Everybody does. This situation is difficult. We’re gonna keep pressing forward.”

Caitlin Tan: And do you think it’s an important time to reserve judgment and be less critical of oneself and perhaps others? As we’re all just kind of doing the best we can right now.

Smith: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I even say this to myself, sometimes. Just, you know, be gentle with yourself. It’s okay.

Tan: And do you think once our world does return to more of a sense of normalcy — like the majority of people are vaccinated and things are opened back up — there could still be some carryover of mental health issues that we suffered from?

Smith: Things are not going to automatically go away, because some things changed, irrevocably, during COVID-19. People have had loved ones die. People have lost their jobs or even their careers. People have been made homeless. There have been an awful lot of losses. And we’ve had to stay really cooped up for a really long time. Difficult situations have become more difficult.

I think we will do our best when we dig down into our mountaineer roots. I know that we’re all doing the best we can — we pull together and we’re compassionate towards one another. If we just give each other just a little more margin, a little more breathing space, a little more benefit of the doubt, and just have this sort of camaraderie or fellow feeling that we all got through this together. And isn’t that something good?

Tan: Yes, true. Can you offer any advice for those who maybe can’t afford counseling going forward, or are just looking for some kind of word of comfort?

Smith: I would just say, “You know, sweetie, maybe it’s been a really bad year, let’s just face it. It’s been really, really hard.” And go easy on yourself. Watch what you say to yourself. Try and say good things and encouraging things to yourself. Maybe temper your expectations of other people, understanding that they, too, are also really stressed. And again, just realize we’re going to take this one step at a time — we’re going to get back to normal.

Here’s just one other small piece of advice: understand what interpersonal boundaries are all about. Interpersonal boundaries are where I end and you begin — you shouldn’t feel like you have to fix all the problems of everyone around you. Let them take charge of their own problems; you attend to your problems and you all work together. So interpersonal boundaries are a really good thing. If you’re not familiar with that phrase you can go and look it up online and start reading about it. But interpersonal boundaries are a really important thing.

The other thing is margins — schedule some margins in your life. Don’t schedule things back-to-back-to-back and tasks back-to-back-to-back. Provide some margins in your life — margins between tasks, margins between different roles and even a margin in your own brain between whatever is provoking you at a moment and then your response to whatever’s provoking. You’re in the moment, and if you can just stick a tiny little margin in between what provoked you and how you respond to that provocation that’ll save you a lot of mental stress in the long run.

If you or a loved one need to talk to a mental health professional, call the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.