The Second Curve

In the wake of COVID-19 comes a second curve of mental health impacts

By Roger Brubaker

Early in the pandemic the columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed for The New York Times predicting a “curve behind the curve” of COVID-19. He argued that this second curve represented the mental health problems and substance misuse that would result from the profound relational, social and economic impact of the pandemic.

 As 2020 progresses, it’s fair to say that this second curve will only be amplified as Americans continue to grapple with our racist history and the current racism in our country as well as people here in the western U.S., and as Lane County experiences the impacts of the recent wildfires.

In fact, emerging research is beginning to validate Brooks’ prediction, indicating that the second curve may already be here. Data from the Centers for Disease Control demonstrates that roughly 40 percent of people in the U.S. have experienced mental health problems, substance abuse or increased suicidal ideation during the pandemic, and that prevalence of depression and anxiety may be three times as high as this time last year. 

Furthermore, this second curve is having a disproportionate effect on the same groups as the first curve: People who identify as Black and Hispanic, lower socioeconomic groups, health care workers and older adults.

These data show that people in the U.S. have been traumatized. Trauma is a response to a deeply disturbing event that overwhelms our ability to cope and can cause feelings of helplessness and diminish our sense of self. As the protracted second curve continues to impact us over the next few years, it will be all the more critical that we work towards understanding our emotional and psychological states and maintaining mental wellness. 

As a result of these traumas, people may feel emotions such as anger, sadness or panic that don’t make sense to them, and they may find it difficult to understand and explain why they feel this way. It is important for us to acknowledge and name these emotions. These are all normal responses for people when faced with trauma and loss and being able to express our experiences and hear others is an important first step for individual and collective recovery. 

For some people it may be important to seek out behavioral health care services. Telebehavioral health care is effective and more widely available than ever before as health care providers work to meet client needs online or over the phone. For others, peer support services may be more acceptable and accessible and provide them with the relief and care they need. The Lane County chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness provides free peer support services online and many other local chapters of groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous have transitioned online as well.

In addition to health care and peer support services, it’s important that people practice a regular self-care regimen. Self care is any act that we incorporate into our lives that provides us with relief and promotes wellness, healing and resilience. This could be anything from mindfulness practices to sharing a comforting moment with a friend to chopping cordwood in the backyard. As long as it is an act done with intention and an emphasis on reminding ourselves that our experience is real, valid and matters, it will help us recover from stress, show up for whatever comes next and be available to support our loved ones.

Many of us will likely need to summon new courage to accomplish these new tasks. If you don’t know where to start, it can sometimes be as simple as saying to someone, “I’m worried about myself and I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?” If you’re worried about someone else you can ask them, “How are you holding up? What can I do to support you?” These questions may not always feel safe and may be truly unsafe for some to ask. If that’s the case, you can call the Whitebird Crisis Line at 541-687-4000 or 1-800-422-7558 for anonymous support.

Mental health, substance misuse and behavioral healthcare services are often stigmatized, and some people may feel uncomfortable, even ashamed, if they are feeling overwhelmed right now. As a result, it’s understandable that some of these suggestions may not resonate with everyone. However, we are facing a protracted wave of loss, and there is no way around this that’s within our control right now. We must accept the reality of these losses, grieve them and find new ways to live in a new world. 

This is difficult and we will continue to struggle, but we don’t need to suffer. Take a moment to check in with yourself and your loved ones today. Remind yourself that you have inherent value. Let others know you care about them. These simple acts are enough right now.

Roger Brubaker is the suicide prevention and mental health promotion coordinator for Lane County Public Health.