Carole Owens: Coping with dramatic change

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STOCKBRIDGE — It is a subject often avoided. Professionals in the field say it is because there is a stigma attached to mental health problems. The stigma is based on the belief that mental health problems are the fault of the sufferer. A person might innocently catch a cold, the argument goes, but should be strong enough to resist depression and conquer anxiety. It is reminiscent of the view of poverty in the 19th century.

Social Darwinism, a concept popular in the 19th century, posited the survival of the fittest even in human society. As America grew in economic strength and the disproportionate distribution of wealth, Social Darwinism blamed the poor for their poverty and justified that a few should hold great wealth. The poor, adherents of Social Darwinism explained, were morally unfit and therefore poor. The rich were more fit and therefore rewarded for their superiority.

Then came the Great Depression. The poor were everywhere; they were neighbors, relatives, and friends. Overnight, through no fault of their own, millions were jobless and destitute. Social Darwinism lost credibility. People stopped blaming the poor and started evaluating institutional causes of poverty.

The current pandemic may play a similar role with respect to mental health problems. Many may suffer, not due to individual characteristics, but in response to external forces. People may stop blaming the sufferers. If the stigma surrounding mental health problems is lessened in the time of novel coronavirus, it would be good outcome in a bad situation.

Novel coronavirus is a mutual experience. Reactions to the common experience appear to be shock and loss. Psychological studies have focused on both.


From one day to the next, without warning, we all suffered an abrupt and significant change. Workers went home, schools closed, and all but essential businesses closed. Many lost jobs, income, and their routines. In an instant, lives changed, and many had an understandable reaction to sudden change.

Alvin Toffler wrote about the psychological reaction to "too much shock in too short a time." In "Future Shock," Toffler wrote, "reactions to shock are stress and disorientation."

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Professionals are so certain that stress follows shock that they use the diagnostic terms shock and "acute stress disorder" interchangeably.

Stress may take different forms. Some may feel foggy or unable to focus. Some may feel physically uncomfortable, perhaps nauseous, unable to sleep or stay asleep. Some may experience an irresistible desire to run away. Others may feel very angry.

Disoriented, some might experience an inability to remember what day it is. We mark time in many ways. One way is to orient ourselves by activities. Every Tuesday we do this, and every Thursday we do that. By the activity, we "mark" time and know the day. When all activities change or stop abruptly, it is not uncommon to lose track of what day it is. As our daily activities change so might our sleeping and eating habits.

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In addition to shock we have all suffered loss. What we lost in an instant was a way of life. From things as simple as routine or how we socialize; to things as complex as how we sustained our way of life economically and socially. Through no fault of their own, in a day, many lost their income, their freedom of movement, their sense of time, usual sleep patterns, the right to congregate, the satisfaction of a social gathering, human contact, where we can go and who we can see.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross clearly articulated the stages of grief that we all go through, in fact that we must go through. When faced with irretrievable loss, the stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Just as our lives are different, we can expect to feel different. Those who thought of themselves as hale and hearty might be surprised by their reactions. Those with preexisting problems may find them exacerbated. The Commonwealth reports an increase in drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, suicides, and calls for help with anxiety.

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Solutions? If we are to expect concomitant mental health issues in response to COVID-19 and the shutdown; what can we do?

Lady Astor was asked how she was so successful, she replied, "I take into public life the lessons I learned at my mother's knee."

Every human being deserves a dignified response. Be kind, be patient and never forget the Golden Rule.

Talk and listen. Put aside blaming. Just as we learned in the Great Depression, many external forces caused poverty not simply the failings of an individual so may external factors contribute to mental unease. Don't pretend you are OK of you are not. Troubles shared are troubles halved.

Be aware. There are those asked to stay home who do not have a home or a safe or adequate home. There are some isolated at home who are frail or otherwise unable to do for themselves all the things necessary. We can consider who they might be and what we might do. In helping others, we often help ourselves. In finding purpose and a rewarding activity, we thrive.

For now, in the current circumstance, we can just do our best. Discover that fears stress and anxieties may lessen when thinking about and helping others.

Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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