I am a happy person.
I often start my days with short mantras that remind me of all of the things I’m grateful for. I smile at people in the hope it will rub off, even when it seems awkward. On the weekends, I play music and sing loudly.
But as we enter month 14 of this pandemic, it's become increasingly difficult to see the glass half full.
Like many this past year, I’ve felt many losses. I’ve braved it all with gratitude: I’m privileged to work from home. I’m thankful for the roof over my head and the food on my table. I am thankful for my health. I am thankful for my (adorable) emotional support dog.
But after more than a year of rolling with the punches, I don’t always feel so great — and I feel guilty about that. I push away lingering thoughts about the moments and loved ones I’ve lost. I try to trick myself into thinking that I’m not as burnt out as I actually am. (Zoom college was not fun). I refute any notion that there are still things I have to process.
Only recently, I’ve come to understand that I can be grateful and still feel sad.
I’ve thought a lot about what it means for employers to encourage “mental health.” During May, companies are hosting webinars and discussions centered on “taking care of yourself.”
But I’ve always felt that expression is arbitrary. Self-care looks different for different people. It's not always about participating in group meditations. Sometimes, it's about making room for sadness and showing compassion when we experience it.
More than 3 million people have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the past year. That’s more than 3 million families mourning at least one loved one. Black lives continue to be lost at the hands of police and other violence. Asian communities are living in fear of violence and discrimination. The Latino community is under the unforgiving grip of the opioid crisis.
It’s only natural to feel heavy with all of this going on. Over 8 in 10 people who took a depression screen in 2020 scored with “moderate to severe” symptoms consistently since the beginning of the pandemic, according to research from Mental Health America. More than 178,000 people have reported frequent suicidal thoughts over the same period.
Like most issues are, the mental health crisis is exacerbated among underrepresented groups. Rates of suicidal ideation are highest among LGBTQ youth. Native Americans represent the highest percentage growth over their lifespan for suicidal ideation, while Black or African Americans show the highest percent change over their lifetimes for anxiety and depression. In 2020, Asian Americans sought mental health resources more than ever before.
People are suffering, and that makes it difficult to perform at work. Meanwhile, “hustle culture” glorifies overwork, inflicting guilt on people who find it difficult to get out of bed some days, or who may not have the mental capacity or lifestyle to work extra time.
If so many of us are suffering, why do we speak about mental health as a problem that needs to be resolved, rather than a spectrum of highs and lows?
Of the more than 19 million Americans that have depression, 20% to 30% report the symptoms don’t entirely go away. At least half of people who experience a depressive episode have a second one, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Mental illnesses are often chronic,and extend well beyond the Month of May for those who have them.
The pandemic has taught us that work is not separate from what’s going on in the world or in people’s personal lives. Everyone carries baggage, and some days are just more difficult than others to leave it at the door.
Employees and employers are both responsible for “taking care” of the individual. A person cannot take care of their mental health if they do not feel safe enough to report their struggles, and they cannot recover if we do not recognize mental health for what it is — a spectrum.
As we return to the office, I hope employees and executives alike bring empathy and compassion with them. I hope we learn to be flexible all of the time, and not only in times of crisis, because we never know when someone is facing a crisis of their own. I hope we have a greater understanding of the psychological impact of the past year on everyone — and make room for people to heal in their own unique way.
But most importantly, I hope we can make room for sadness, and rather than judge it, extend a comforting and understanding hand when it appears.
Sabrina Sanchez is a reporter with Campaign US.