The pandemic brought depression and anxiety. Reaching out helped.

By Steven Petrow

Depression crept up on me over the summer and into the fall, so slowly that I wasn’t aware of the change in my well-being — until suddenly I was.

For most of that time I chose to tough it out, largely keeping quiet about my downward trajectory. I knew I wasn’t alone. A few months into the pandemic, the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention warned that mental health diagnoses — anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide — were on the rise. By year’s end, a government survey found that the nation’s mood had continued to darken.

Still, many people I know continue to say they are “fine” — or defiantly “fine, fine, fine,” as one friend answered when I checked in with him.

To be honest, “fine” had been my go-to response when someone asked how I was doing, even as depression and what I often call its first cousin, anxiety, set in. Years ago, a psychotherapist helped wean me off “fine” as an answer to the question, “How are you?” He explained, “Fine is neither an emotion or a feeling,” urging me toward greater self-awareness and a more honest response like “happy” or “content,” or “angry” or “sad.” Apparently, I had forgotten that lesson.

In the run-up to Election Day my outlook had dimmed sufficiently that I could see the depth of this darkness. For instance, every time my friend Amy phoned, I realized I was taking a nap, preparing to take one, or just finishing one. That’s long been one of my telltale signs that all’s not well. “Maybe I can sleep through the rest of the pandemic,” I said to her one day, joking but not joking.

About that time, a fellow writer asked on Facebook how people were faring, after admitting she found herself struggling. A deluge of posts expressing worry and sadness and loneliness resulted. That outpouring of emotion told me many of us had been hiding our true feelings; it also indicated the importance of someone going first, as if to break the ice by admitting, “I’m not OK.”

Soon after, I raised my hand by posting on my Facebook feed, “Yes, this is a hard time for me.” I provided some additional detail, like the fact that a topsy-turvy stomach had whipped me into such an anxious state I’d become convinced I had pancreatic cancer instead of a simple bellyache. What turned out to be merely a pulled calf muscle started off — in my mind — as a COVID-induced blood clot about to break free.

Fear had become my constant companion.

Even though I’d gone public about my struggles with depression before, I still worried about talking openly about my state of mind, largely because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. I reached out to David Cates, a clinical psychologist and behavioral health consultant to the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Biocontainment Unit and National Quarantine Center. He explained what I already knew but had sidestepped. “Acknowledging that something is wrong is the first step to addressing a problem,” he said. “It allows us to begin problem-solving. When someone else acknowledges their difficulties, whether one-on-one or in a public forum, it can make it easier for us to acknowledge our own.”

That Facebook post of mine — the one where I raised my hand — helped me tremendously.

And apparently many others. More than 200 friends responded with their own painful confessions. “Anxiety, depression and loneliness x 100,” wrote one, who added, “body aches which at 3 a.m., betwixt and between anxiety nightmares — become sure signs of debilitating disease eating away my insides.” Another posted, “In my mind I’ve had five major diseases yet all my labs are fine.”

Friends posted about insomnia, nausea, lack of focus, eye tics, agita, anxiety, relationship issues and being “angry, cranky and crazy.” Almost as quickly as one friend would acknowledge a condition, someone else would volunteer: “me too.”

My admission had the intended consequence: It created an opening for others. “You’ve put words to what I think is a collective sentiment,” posted a neighbor whom I see often, but who had never before discussed any of these feelings with me. “Everyone seems to feel disconnected from others, irritable and frightened,” a colleague wrote, helping to make universal our ongoing challenges.

Since then I’ve posted regularly: “It’s Friday check-in time. How are you all doing this week?” Friends and followers have continued to acknowledge their trials and tribulations as well as their successes and triumphs.

I also scheduled a virtual appointment with my primary care physician, who told me to take an antacid for my stomach upset, which has helped.

Now, in the depths of winter, more people I know are acknowledging their mental health issues in public. “I must admit I am feeling a little despairing this morning,” wrote one woman I know, adding, “I am sure I am not the only one. If you are, too, you are not alone.” Her friends quickly followed up. “The weight is heavy today. Thanks for connecting.” And another: “I see you. Sitting silently beside you.”

So many of us think we are the “only one.” That we’re by ourselves, invisible. I find it comforting that many of my friends are finding connection with each other through social media. “I feel terrible and feel terrible for everyone posting here, but there is some consolation in seeing that we’re not alone,” posted a friend.

To see one another, we need to make ourselves visible. To help one another, we need to acknowledge we need a hand, too. I’m trying.

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