By Matthew Kelly / Wichita Journalism Collaborative
The psychological toll of the coronavirus pandemic is undeniable. At the height of lockdowns last spring, one in three Americans displayed signs of clinical depression or anxiety, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
There’s no way to predict or quantify the long-term impact of this collective suffering, but experts say people are now discussing their mental health and wellbeing more freely than before the pandemic, providing a chance to break down some of the stigma that has long surrounded mental illness.
“With COVID-19, we’re seeing more openness, more discussion, more willingness to talk about it,” said Shantel Westbrook, director of services at COMCARE of Sedgwick County, the state’s largest community mental health center.
Westbrook said important messaging about mental health has been amplified during the pandemic.
“Check on your neighbor. Check on your family. We have to keep connected. We have to stay aware,” she said.
The physical isolation has put the impetus on people to reach out to loved ones and ask about their wellbeing or confide in them about their own.
“It’s getting a lot of attention because we know we can’t be isolated and have our whole world change, and not suffer something,” Westbrook said. “Maybe it’s not a full-blown depressive episode or anxiety, but it is a lot of struggle.”
Dismissing mental illness
In her 20 years overseeing COMCARE’s clinical and rehabilitation services, Westbrook said an unwillingness to acknowledge and discuss mental health issues has been one of the biggest barriers to treatment in Sedgwick County.
“It is definitely harder for people to acknowledge things like depression,” Westbrook said. “I think it comes down to that we tend to blame people and assume that they could get better.”
Too often, people with mental illnesses are told to snap out of it. To get over it. To get back to work.
Rachel Brown, professor and chair of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences department at KU School of Medicine-Wichita, said there’s no meaningful distinction between mental and physical illnesses.
“We all have historically tried to make it something different, and it’s not. It’s the same illness as any other kind of illness,” Brown said.
“There’s nothing different about living with asthma, which is a recurrent, remitting illness that is sometimes totally asymptomatic and sometimes it’s life threatening. There’s nothing different about living with asthma than there is about living with depression, which sometimes is completely asymptomatic or very well managed, and at other times is disabling or life-threatening.”
This stigma is firmly rooted in centuries of misunderstanding, she said, pointing to a scene in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” that illustrates this largely dismissive attitude towards mental health issues.
“Lady Macbeth is waking in the night and walking around wringing her hands and reexperiencing the murders,” Brown said. “It really describes the nightmares you get with post traumatic stress issues.”
When Macbeth asks the doctor if some sort of medicine could ease his wife’s suffering, the doctor responds that no such drug or treatment would be effective: “Therein the patient/Must minister to himself”
Brown said people with diagnosed mental health issues sometimes have more difficulty accessing care for physical conditions.
“They’re given less pain medication. They may be told, you know, ‘It’s all in your head’ or ‘You’re never going to get better from that unless you get your mental illness under control,’” Brown said.
“Stigma shows up in those kinds of interactions as well.”
‘It’s not just me’
When left untreated, mental health issues can become generational, Westbrook said
“A lot of the kids in our programs have parents with untreated mental health issues,” she said.
“Many, many times our staffings revolve around ‘How can we talk dad into getting treatment? How can we talk mom or aunt or caregiver into getting treatment?’ Because we know that is a major factor — that their untreated mental health issues are now really affecting the child.”
The stigma around mental health isn’t uniform across demographics, Westbrook said. Younger people tend to be more open to talking about their own mental health than older people. Women tend to be more willing than men.
The truth of the matter, though, is that everyone struggles, Westbrook said.
“It’s really hard to remember that ‘Wait, everybody feels this way. It’s not just me.’”
That’s one reason why the shared experience of the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to broaden the public discourse on mental health.
“Everybody went through it and it’s nobody’s — it wasn’t our fault,” Brown said. “I didn’t do it. I couldn’t have avoided it. There was nothing I could do that would have made any difference to whether or not I was exposed to this really traumatic experience.”
Oftentimes, she said, people are hesitant to discuss the factors that contribute to their depression and anxiety because they are usually deeply personal and sometimes intertwined with shame and guilt.
Because the pandemic has been a collective trauma, people have seemingly been more willing to confide in each other about their struggles.
Brown and Westbrook agree that the stigma of mental illness won’t be eradicated overnight. But they remain hopeful that meaningful progress can be made as the world cautiously emerges from COVID-19.
“Just trying to keep it alive, keep the education going,” Westbrook said. “I see a lot of websites that do kind of daily, that started through the COVID times of ‘Hey, here’s your mental health awareness for the day or the week.’”
But for mental health issues to truly be normalized, people will have to be willing to get out of their comfort zone and initiate difficult conversations with friends and family members.
“You just start with the question, ‘How are you doing?’” Brown said. “Just the simple questions and then the sharing of your own experiences, I think is really important. For people to say, ‘Yeah, I went through that too’ and for people to say, ‘Oh yeah, I was depressed. Yeah, I’ve been there. I know what that feels like. Here’s what helps me.’”
Making it clear that you care and are willing to be a part of someone’s mental health solutions can go a long way, Westbrook said.
“‘Hey, I do know someone’ or ‘Hey, my neighbor a month ago said that she used this particular service. Let me help you access that. How can I kind of partner with you to do that?’”
Taking an active role in loved ones’ mental health journeys can help dispel the misplaced shame that is too often intertwined with mental illness.
“The thing that would make the difference is if we could go out into the world and people say, ‘Oh, yeah, I have depression.’ ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ And they would have the same attitude as if you had asthma,” Brown said.
She remembers a time not so long ago when the same kind of stigma kept people from openly discussing their cancer diagnoses. She knows that stigma can be broken.
If you would like to share your experience with mental health struggles and care during the pandemic, please take our anonymous survey.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact Comcare 24 hours a day at 316-660-7500 or at sedgwickcounty.org/comcare.
This story was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies and three community organizations working together to bring timely and accurate news and information to Kansans.