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Opinion: We need a new normal 

May is national Mental Health Month, and seasonally it’s one of the best times of the year to address depression: The sun is shining, flowers and crops are poking through the soil, birds are chirping. But this year, spring is overshadowed as we strive to be resilient in the midst of a pandemic. Experts are warning us to prepare for an “echo pandemic,” an uptick in depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicide long after the spread of the virus is under control.

We are now on week who-knows of life interrupted due to COVID-19. Yes, cultivating mindfulness and gratefulness as a means of survival during this time is a good idea, but so is being honest about how you’re really doing. The constant bad news and instability threatens our footing. We are finding ways to be productive through Zoom meetings, Google Hangouts, home school or whatever it is we’re doing to move forward, but many are in survival mode. It’s hard to focus when it feels like the whole world is on fire.

Schedules, goals, jobs — projects and passions that, in some cases, we were working on for years — have been changed, postponed or canceled overnight. For a lot of us, it has been months since we have hugged our family and friends, congregated in our houses of worship or just simply felt connected. Everything feels out of control right now. Searching for purpose, self-worth and motivation can be exhausting.

While each of us has taken on our own share of burdens due to coronavirus and its ripple effects, make no mistake — those burdens don’t break evenly.

Black and Latinx communities are already disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, and are dying from it at higher rates. The echo pandemic will harm these communities disproportionately, too. Constantly processing racism creates trauma; so does the lack of access to mental health care, the shortage of culturally competent providers and breaking the cultural stigma of mental illness.
As society rushes to get back to “normal,” for many of us “normal” wasn’t working then, and won’t serve us later.

No one should have to make a choice between paying the bills and getting the health care services they need, or look for ways to self-medicate. And I’m tired of prison being the mainstream option for people who are poor and struggle with mental illness.
People of color, who already face economic and health disparities, are especially vulnerable to the emotional and economic impacts of the pandemic. Many studies show that financial recession and extended periods of stress can have disastrous effects on physical, mental and emotional health. Psychotherapist Ken Page says in an article for mindbodygreen.com, “We all have different fears. It’s a grave unknown, and our nervous systems process that differently. Sometimes we don’t feel it at all and then it hits us like a ton of bricks.”

In the short term, expanding programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, providing emergency financial assistance to those in poverty and funneling assistance to immigrants are temporary solutions. But we need to create something new.

To whatever extent our social circles have been affected by the virus, a whole lot of us are grappling with isolation, or adapting to the grief this pandemic has caused in our lives.

Everybody wants to open up the economy and get back to work safely — to work that works for all of us, not just a few. Going forward, we need to move the economy in a different direction.

The consequences of the virus don’t end with the development of herd immunity; long-term effects will exacerbate mental illness and addiction. Getting people back to work without providing fair wages, health care and tools to deal with their trauma is continuing to feed a system we know is failing, one that will never be resilient.

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