Opinion: Coping With Mental Health Challenges and COVID-19

by Marcus Harrison Green

Every day brings a batch of fresh hells.

Ruminating on crisis ignites a tailspin of horror.

Required to be alone, you fear loneliness.

Stress, anxiety, and depression stalk you, as much as the march of what seems like an inevitable pandemic.

Before being treated for bipolar disorder that was once my every day, It now seems like the world’s.

Clinical anxiety has increased by 18% since February over worry about the coronavirus, according to a study by Mental Health America. While our viral predicament impacts everyone,  it holds especially worrisome implications for the country’s neuroatypical.

That’s why last week, suffering from a cold and self-quarantined, I found myself on the floor of my bedroom, lying fetally, body rumbling from an uncontrollable crying spell.

A victim of a neurological disorder, triggered by forgetting to take my stabilizing drugs, work stress, a lack of sleep, and a friend’s untimely death.

Feeling like I emotionally soiled myself while running a publication, I was at my weakest, when others counted on my strength.

I needed to pause, and to do so with the other 3% of people, who like me, will always be different from everyone else.

But it’s a hard lift when sustained physical distance from sources of support, like my bipolar gathering, are necessary precautions.

After being diagnosed nearly two years ago, it’s a place I go, anonymously, for connection. No matter how accepting my family and friends are, most will never fully comprehend a condition where emotions are sometimes as uncontrollable as a boar on amphetamines.

My erratic mind can ping-pong from stratospheric mania to nosediving depression. Living with bipolar means facing the daily prospect your life could be set ablaze. An episode last year sent me to the hospital, and required a three-month break from work.

It’s why most in my community crave structure to manage their condition, especially in periods of whirling chaos, as now. A disruption of routine can be devastating.

Online options exist,  but nothing replicates the palpable sense of belonging found in the group, especially to our neuroatypical society members (one in about every five Americans), who in normal times can feel isolated, even when in herds at Coachella.

With government-mandated restrictions on any sizable social gatherings to curb the COVID-19 outbreak, the isolation will intensify, and with it the crushing depression often symptomatic of bipolar disorder.

Those living with it are highly susceptible to suicide. Between 25 and 50% attempt it at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Institute. I would know.

A feeling of extreme isolation — and the hopelessness that follows — was a major factor, as it is with a high number in the mental health community. Something policymakers must account for as they wrestle with measures slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Myself, I grappled with emerging from my recent pit by turning to leaders in the bipolar community first discovered while seeking wisdom in the early days of my diagnosis.

Lessons, meant for the bipolar community, were applicable to all.

“Just like any mania, anxiety and depression, things always get better if we hold on to hope,” the author Susie Johnson told me.

Otherwise, you heighten the stress of already stressful times, potentially baiting a bipolar episode and debilitating anxiety.

Limiting media consumption is an essential stress-reducer, according to Julie A Fast, whose books include Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, and Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder.

“People with bipolar are incredibly resilient,” says Fast. “What makes us sick is this 24-hour online access to coronavirus news. Our thoughts are often much worse than reality. When we tame our thoughts, we can reduce panic.”

Though panic is pervasive nowadays, it can be lethal to those without a “bipolar lifeline” found in support groups, speeding them to an at-capacity medical facility.

“People need to know that they’re not sitting in a room alone with no one else out there. They don’t want to get psychotic, They don’t want to get more paranoid by the news. They need human contact,” says Fast, who manages both her own bipolar disorder and a separate psychotic disorder and advises people to have an ample supply of their medications in case of extended shelter in place scenarios.

She insists that any mental health group forced to cancel in-person meetings should hold them  online or teleconference. If for no other reason than exposure to counter-perspectives.

A recent example is a post Fast published to a bipolar Facebook group, gauging the temperature of how people felt about the COVID-19 crisis.

“I was amazed at how many people said, “we have had so much adversity, we’ll be fine. The majority of people who get coronavirus will be fine.” Maybe the world just needs a break,” she says.

That break, however, does also mean one from vital routines.

“Everything is so different. I can’t go to yoga class or go swimming. The world is racing and yet it’s so still.” says Ellen Forney, whose graphic memoir Marbles is a near-biblical canon in the bipolar community.

The relative sterileness of Seattle streets has also been challenging for Forney, an illustrator who regularly attended art walks. But as anyone in the bipolar community knows, a part of coping is seizing the grace of silver linings from struggle.

On a walk last week around her quiet Seattle neighborhood, Forney, who is also a mental wellness coach, encountered a lone 70-year-old woman working in her garden.

“In the middle of all this scariness around death, she was still nurturing living things. That’s so important right now,” says Forney, who is currently working on a comic about handwashing.

Helping others is also mentally restorative, says Forney.

“We deal with this type of anxiety all the time, it’s just amplified now for everyone else. It’s important that what all of us have in common is needing support from other people,” she says.

Her’s were the first words I ever read to help navigate my bipolar disorder. I took her recent ones to heart just a few days ago, when depression gripped me hard enough I could barely make it to the restroom.

Alone, most friends were busy, I coursed deeper into desolation.

And then my phone rang.

It was a friend who also struggles with a mental illness.

Checking on me to make sure I was eating, and taking my meds.

They also provided a refresher.

You may be different, but you’re not abnormal.

Whatever tomorrow brings, however uncertain, it may not be life as usual, but it is life.

And we’ll face it together.

Marcus Harrison Green is the founder of the South Seattle Emerald and a former Seattle Times reporter. Follow him @mhgreen3000


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