When my children were little, moments of transition or change sometimes caused them to feel anxious or unsure. I remember my daughter’s kindergarten teacher telling me that every day when it was time to go to recess and join the throngs of older children on the playground, a little hand would slip into hers for the walk down the long, noisy hallway. My daughter needed just a small show of reassurance and connection to make the transition from the safe classroom to the bigger world.
I think of this as a metaphor for the moment we are in right now, the transition away from this unusual chapter of isolation and disconnection.
I imagine some of us are eager to join the noisy throngs, ready for big social gatherings and the energy that accompanies being among people again. Probably others are a bit like my daughter at age 5, needing some reassurance and connection to counter the anxiety. And still others may truly not be ready to step back into their pre-COVID-19 lives.
The impacts of the past year have been intense, and for some it may take time and significant support to make this transition.
So what are the strategies that will allow us to embark on this new chapter of more “normal” lives?
I think one important first step is to acknowledge the grief and loss in the past 16 months. Every one of us missed out on key celebrations or milestones of some kind — vacations, graduations, marriages, births. Many also experienced more significant losses, including deaths and divorces, or financial strain and loss of jobs or businesses or housing.
Our young people endured incredible stress, schooling from home without the peer interaction they crave, and their parents survived even more intense stress, managing work and schooling and normal household duties.
The list goes on and on, and it is critical we take a moment to acknowledge that grief, name it, and recognize the emotions we have from our own experience over the past months.
But an important second step is to also acknowledge the incredible resiliency we have collectively shown.
Despite all of these hardships, we have mostly persevered. We have shown our adaptability and our internal strength in the ways we continued onward: working, doing online school, zooming with our relatives, and creating innovative safe social gatherings.
At the start of the pandemic, the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department was terrified that we would see skyrocketing numbers of people in mental health crisis, including huge numbers of hospitalizations and people struggling with suicide.
In fact, our county numbers in all of these areas stayed lower than what we normally see. This is not to discount the experience of anyone who struggled with their mental health in recent months, or specifically struggled with feeling suicidal. But it is also to remind us of the hopefulness of our ongoing human capacity to be creative and resilient in the face of difficult times.
The third, and perhaps most important step in this journey back to “normal,” is to remember that human connection is one of the most powerful strategies for good mental health.
Over the past year, nearly all of us felt lonely or disconnected at some point, or maybe for long stretches. Rebuilding the muscle memory of how to connect, how to interact, is one of the most important things we each need to focus on in this transition period.
Perhaps start small — reach out to your most trusted friends or family, engage in one-on-one conversations. As you feel more comfortable (as vaccination status and rules allow), pull together small groups for a shared meal or gathering.
And as you begin reinvesting in your social world, think about who in your life might find this transition more challenging. Who might be feeling more disconnected, might need some extra support or reassurance, that metaphorical hand to hold?
The mental health impacts of this year may still be felt for months. In the short term, that may show up as anxiety or sadness as we process our grief or work through this transition. Over the longer term, some of us might have ongoing feelings of depression or may find ourselves drinking more than normal.
Please remember there is a big network of professional helpers ready to help when life gets overwhelming. If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, call 530-265-5811. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to 741741. Trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 to make sure you get the support you need.
It’s important to remember that most of us will experience a mental health challenge in our lifetime. It’s OK not to be OK all the time, and it’s OK to ask for help when you need it. For more information on how to support your mental health during this time, visit http://www.LetsTalkNevadaCounty.org.
We have together survived an incredibly challenging time, and together we can best transition to this next chapter.
Phebe Bell is the behavioral health director for Nevada County