Cara V. James, PhD, President and CEO, Grantmakers In Health
As the summer winds down, it is impossible not to reflect on where we are as a country and to acknowledge that we remain in a time of significant upheaval and uncertainty about the future personally and professionally. When we closed our offices in March, few of us thought we would still be at home at the end of the summer, or that the coronavirus would continue to affect communities as badly as it has. The stress and strain of the events of the past few months, combined with the uncertainty of the future, is taking a toll on all of us—but as the late Congressman John Lewis said, “History tells us that we must never give up. That we must never give in or give out. That we cannot get lost in a sea of despair. That we must all keep the faith. That we must keep our eyes on the prize.”
Regardless of age, race or ethnicity, sex, income, or employment status, people across the country are feeling anxious and worried. Data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, fielded July 16-21, found that 41 percent of adults reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (U.S. Census Bureau 2020). In comparison, only 11 percent of adults reported similar symptoms between January and June of 2019 (National Center for Health Statistics 2020). Data from the same survey found that 34 percent of renters owe rent, and 15 percent of homeowners with a mortgage have little to no confidence in their ability to make their payment, and 12 percent of adults reported they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat during the last 7 days. As is often the case, rates are higher for Black and Hispanic adults, and data are unavailable for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Physician burnout has been the focus of numerous articles over the past few years. Several articles published in the past few months suggest that the problem may be getting worse as a result of the pandemic. Health care providers and essential workers remain on the frontlines of pandemic response and they have expressed concerns about their risk of exposure to the virus as well as their ability to stay home to care for themselves or their loved ones if they get sick. Less attention has been given to the experiences of others, including public health workers, community groups, health researchers, policymakers, and foundation staff. While not necessarily on the frontlines of the pandemic, these professionals have also pivoted to respond to the health and social justice crises. Uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last, concern about social unrest, and personal and family demands are contributing to stress, anxiety, and burnout among these groups as well. Community, health, and philanthropic leaders may be feeling an additional level of stress because we are responsible for the health and safety of our staff, the fiscal health of our organizations, and for navigating our organizations through this difficult time. We may not have all the answers or know what lies ahead, but as John Lewis once said, “Those of us who are committed to the cause of justice need to pace ourselves, because our struggle does not last for one day, one week or one year, but is the struggle of a lifetime, and each generation must do its part.”
Each of us must identify ways to cope with the challenges and uncertainty of the moment. Having a strong support network is an important part of managing life’s struggles. Family, friends, and colleagues who you can talk to and who can relate to the things you are experiencing can help. Peer support can be particularly helpful as you try to identify solutions. Sharing lessons learned, ideas for moving forward, and specific challenges with individuals in similar circumstances can lead to better solutions and also reduce feelings of loneliness.
Taking a break to rest and recharge is also important, especially when it is unclear how long the struggle will last. This could take the form of a walk or a jog, an afternoon or day off, a longer break, or a change of scenery which can help reduce stress and tension. We understand that recovery from the pandemic will take a long time, and we need to gather our strength to be prepared for the work that lies ahead.
Sometimes, these self-care strategies are not enough, and professional help is necessary. Unfortunately, the stigmatization of mental health makes it harder for people to acknowledge they need help or seek out assistance. As a result, less than half of adults with any mental illness received treatment in the past year (SAMHSA 2017). I hesitated to write about stress and anxiety this month for fear that someone might think that I was writing about myself. I realized I too had internalized the stigma, and asked myself: why would it matter if they did? We are all human. At times we struggle, and sometimes we need help to deal with those struggles, but too few receive help for myriad reasons.
We have been through a lot over the last six months and have more challenges ahead. One final thought from John Lewis: “We may not have chosen the time, but the time chose us.” We do not know how much further we have to go until we reach a better place, but we know the journey will take some time. As we head into Fall, let us take a moment to rest, recharge, and to care for one another so that we are prepared to meet the challenges ahead. Let us also remain hopeful, knowing that together we can accomplish anything.
US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, 2020.
National Center for Health Statistics. Early Release of Selected Mental Health Estimates Based on Data from the January–June 2019 National Health Interview Survey. May 2020.
National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. February 2019