The pandemic and your mental health: why recovery may take time

With COVID-19 still impacting many aspects of our lives, and the ‘new normal’ not really very normal at all, you may still be struggling with your mental health. Learn why that’s not unexpected – and why it’s important to honour the recovery process. 

Now that we’ve had time to learn more about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, one thing’s clear – the effect it’s had on our mental health has been significant.

One in five Australians said their mental health was either “worse” or “much worse” in January 2021 compared to before the pandemic began.

As we move into a new phase, several stressors, like loneliness, have eased and many Australians’ mental health has improved as a result.

However recent research by Australia’s Mental Health Think Tank shows that some people, particularly those who were hardest hit by the pandemic, are finding it more difficult to bounce back.

“What we found is that the pandemic had a greater impact on some Australians, including young people, people living with existing mental health and psychological challenges, and women, particularly those with child-caring responsibilities,” says Professor Maree Teesson, Director of the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use and chair of Australia’s Mental Health Think Tank. 

She says that now, when there’s a sense that the worst of the pandemic might be over, there will be people who feel like they’re still not coping but aren’t sure why.

“What we know from our research is that if you’re still living with a lack of social connection, or economic inequality or insecurity, or you have existing mental health problems, then it’s going to be tougher for you to bounce back. All of those things are real and all of those things impact your mental health. And in the same way that we were all in different boats during the height of the pandemic, we’re in different ones now, too.”

It’s okay to not be okay

The first thing Teesson suggests as a way to continue processing how you’ve been affected is accepting that if your mental health is struggling, that’s okay.

There’s no timeline for being “done” and you certainly shouldn’t try to ignore how you’re feeling just because others – who may not be experiencing the same challenges – appear to be coping well.

Acknowledging that this is a stressful and uncertain time is really important. 

“It’s okay to give yourself permission to feel overwhelmed. And, at the same time, it’s okay to give yourself permission to share in some of the joy that you may see other people embracing, too, without needing everything else to be perfect first.”

Rebuild your social connections     

Taking stock of how your social connections may have been impacted by COVID is also key. “These can be a huge source of support for people, so acknowledging the fact that they’ve been disrupted and considering that this might be one of the reasons why you’re not feeling well, is a good step,” says Teesson.

“It’s also important to understand that it can take time to build those social connections back up again. It’s something to invest in.”

Focus on what you can control

While you can’t control what the future holds, there’s always something in your life that you can take control of, and that’s a good thing for your mental health.

It’s what Teesson calls “active coping”.

“Whether it’s going for a walk, introducing something pleasant into your life, giving yourself some space or switching off regularly, there’s usually something right in front of you that you can control.” 

Seek out support

Australia is a world leader when it comes to developing and providing digital mental health services.

“As a society, we actually have some amazing digital resources available in Australia and I think it’s really empowering for people to hear that it’s okay to reach out and try them.”

These services include online and phone support as well as self-guided programs for depression and anxiety. Many are funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Health. You can contact Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service or visit Head to Health to find digital mental health resources and online programs from other trusted providers.

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