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COVID pandemic elevates importance of mental health

February 27, 2021

March 11, 2021 will mark the one year anniversary since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. By that date, in the U.S. along, approximately 30 million will have contracted the virus, the lingering effects of the disease will still be afflicting millions, and more than 500,000 will have perished. This magnitude of impact on human physical health and mortality is difficult to fully comprehend, too much to bear – numbing, especially knowing this will continue for many more months, or longer.

There, too, are reasons for optimism. Advancements in COVID-19 detection and treatment techniques are promising and ongoing. The ability to mitigate disease spread through hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing is empowering. And, of course, effectiveness of first generation vaccines is beyond encouraging. While we have yet to end the pandemic, applying all of these tools will help make our collective success more than possible.

But, this is only part of the story. Behind the physical illness lies the silent manifestation of the pandemic in the form of chronic stress, depression, anxiety and trauma – mental illness. 

While our physical health is currently threatened by social beliefs that deny the seriousness (or even the existence) of COVID-19 not to mention the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and vaccination, our mental health is undermined by pervasive social stigma toward mental illness. Such stigma includes negative attitudes about those struggling with mental illness – seeing depression, anxiety and other conditions as personal short-comings or character flaws, not as forms of illness such as diabetes, coronary artery disease or cancer. 

Stigma also leads to discrimination in work, school and social settings. Health insurance companies often provide greater coverage for treatment of physical conditions than for mental health services. And, perhaps most damaging, stigma often means that even among family and close friends, acknowledging, discussing and seeking support for mental health challenges is often taboo. In the social isolation that results, many self-medicate through unhealthy use of food, caffine, alcohol, drugs and other harmful behaviors.

In my own experience, including during the pandemic, a mix of regular self-care, connection with caring others, healthy physical exercise, and mindfulness practice are essential and bare minimum steps to maintaining my mental well-being. Still, I sometimes see a counselor and consider doing so an important part of my commitment to maintaining good mental health, and by extension, my ability to be the kind of father and husband I aspire to be. 

Taking my mental health seriously is a work in progress and a journey I did not begin until I was nearly 30 years of age. The social stigma I held toward mental illness prevented me from seeking support earlier in my life. Only in the depths of my own suffering did I decide it was important to invest in my mental well-being by seeking support from others.

Now, years later, I am hopeful that from the depths of our COVID despair, we might increasingly give ourselves permission to personally and publicly recognize when we are mentally unwell. With such increased awareness in the prevalence of mental illness, we might then be better equipped to encourage ourselves and others to tend to mental well-being. 

My resistance to seeking support from a counselor has mostly, though not entirely, faded. I remind myself that there is no shame in seeking support from a caring and skilled counselor – just like calling on a mechanic, financial planner, plumber, tax accountant, doctor or dentist. As a father, I’m hopeful that for my middle schoolers – daughter Zoe and son Adam – my willingness to speak openly about the importance of mental health, including both my personal efforts and my willingness to seek support from others, will normalize their own sense of mental well-being. 

I’m also grateful that public messaging about mental health has become more commonplace in recent years, as Adam and I have come to appreciate through the simple pleasure of listening to reruns of the radio show Car Talk. The show, which aired from 1977 to 2012 and is still available from an NPR app, was hosted by brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, known also as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.” Each episode includes car owners with woeful tales of malfunctioning cars who seek sagely advice from the brothers.

I’ve always loved the show, in part for the mechanical remedies doled out by the hosts but even more so for their sense of humor and infectious laughter. Surprisingly, Adam loves the show too and together we belly-laugh through episodes while running errands or working on home renovations. This past year we noticed the arrival of a new advertisement on the show, one that Adam, without any prompting, began to parrot:  “BetterHelp is a truly affordable online counseling service. Whether its depression, anxiety or trauma, BetterHelp will help you get rid of what stands in the way of your happiness. Learn more at” 

I can’t speak for the quality of BetterHelp, but I can say that the message is priceless when it comes to helping normalize the importance of mental health and seeking support, a hopeful sign for our difficult times.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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