New York City (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
In Southern California, three generations of a family gathered their separate households under one roof to weather the pandemic — and liked it so much they decided to make it permanent. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, students organized to buy groceries and essentials for the housebound. And as the virus surged, a nationwide Brides’ magazine survey of engaged couples showed that 82% found the pandemic only made them keener to wed.
COVID-19, this nation’s deadliest pandemic, has taken the lives of over 700,000 Americans and about 4.5 million people worldwide. Everyone has been through some struggle – illness, grief over unimaginable loss, or the miasma of uncertainty about jobs, education, and daily routines. Amid tragedy and challenges, though, people have shown remarkable kindness. They have also forged new bonds, gained fresh insights into what it means to be there for others, and re-examined life priorities.
A Pew research survey of what it called the pandemic’s silver linings and struggles showed the clarity that came from being thrown together or living apart from loved ones and friends, and losing the underpinnings of everyday life, from office work to entertainment. The renowned economist Paul Krugman has even theorized that workers are quitting jobs at record rates in part because the pandemic has made them rethink their lives.
As we negotiate re-entry into work, school, socializing, and public spaces, plenty of us are dusting off that saying attributed to Winston Churchill: never let a good crisis go to waste. As an advocate for mental wellbeing, I do indeed believe that we can use these difficult days to foster personal growth and improve mental fitness.
By mental fitness I mean not just getting by or holding on. Rather, I define mental fitness as actively taking steps to achieve and maintain a state of wellbeing. Wellbeing means being more intentional: naming what we think, feel, and believe, and managing our emotions and behavior. We will all have ups and downs, but the more mentally fit we are, the more likely we are to weather a major life crisis or even a global pandemic.
Our level of mental fitness indicates whether we are able to draw on coping strategies that do not involve substance misuse, withdrawal, or hurting ourselves or others. The same way we work on toning our arms and legs and increasing our strength, we can learn exercises and practice skills that help us maintain mental fitness.
Here in New York City, in mid-August we launched Mental Health for All, the first-ever comprehensive website and public education campaign to connect New Yorkers to mental health resources. This fall, we set out to make certain that our more than 300,000 city employees know that their city is here for them as we muster through this landscape of booster shots, break-through cases, and return to full-time in the office.
There are many apps and online tools to manage health and wellbeing, including this app library assembled by our city that can be used by anyone. It includes “Happify,” which uses evidence-based, game-like tools.
What are some steps anyone can take? Establish daily wellness practices: exercise, connect with friends, journal, practice yoga or meditation.
If you have a family, sticking to a routine and regularly scheduled “family meetings” to discuss problems and feelings can go a long way. Ascertain what you can control when a crisis strikes. Ask your children (and yourself) what you are feeling, why you feel that way, and what can you do to manage the feeling in a healthy way.
Children, especially, ask questions that are profound in their simplicity: why did grandma die? How do I know that covid will not get me? What do I do when I feel afraid or angry?
As a big proponent of social emotional learning (SEL), I urge parents to practice SEL skills at home. SEL is a proven educational approach used in schools nationwide, including New York City. Students learn to identify their emotions, manage feelings, build relationships, and resolve conflicts. Those skills improve behavior and academic success and can be used in every area of life.
We can model SEL skills for our children and other young people. It can be as simple as saying, “I am feeling sad today, so I plan to listen to some of my favorite music and then go for a run.”
While I encourage everyone to reach out for professional help when problems are overwhelming or they cannot function, let us remember that we need not wait until we need help to focus on our mental health. Good mental health is always important.
This pandemic has no clear ending, but we do not have to put our lives on hold. We have the power to get our hearts and minds in better shape and keep on growing.
Chirlane McCray is the First Lady of New York City. On Twitter @NYCFirstLady.