‘Alone Together’: Mental Illness and COVID-19

As I write this, the world is turned on its head, still in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions, which is to say that all humanity is still living with news reports of death and illness, and in a state of uncertainty and anxiety. Yet, while our lives are on hold, we must still simultaneously perform the rudimentary aspects of living. We still need to eat, so we shop for food, or have it delivered. When we must move about  in public  – only as “essential” (meaning that we only shop for food, or seek emergent medical care), we wear masks, stay away from one another, and carry bottles of hand sanitizer with us. Each time we venture out of our cocoons to come in contact with or speak with others – while socially distanced – we are conscious that we face the possibility of contracting a virus which has proven fatal and has taken the lives of people we know. It has proven to be unnerving.

I’ve never experienced a pandemic, so why, I ask myself, did I have a feeling of déjà vu? I couldn’t shake the nagging anxiety, though I am not anxious by nature. It felt both deeply personal and so palpable; it was a weight on my heart that wouldn’t leave. And, it felt so completely familiar.

I awoke one morning with the stunning realization that I had lived with the constant awareness of the “sword of Damocles” hanging over my head once before. I lived this life during the latter part of 2012, from the day I discovered my son’s near lifeless body after he attempted suicide the first time, on July 20th, until the day of his death on December 16th. It became my life the moment I acknowledged the reality and severity of his mental illness. The only difference between my personal experience of then and now is that these days I share my existential dread with all of humanity.

Fear and anxiety have hijacked our lives and have become the wallpaper of our minds as we cope with a socially distanced reality and await a vaccine. When we speak with friends, family, or strangers both near and far, the conversation inevitably turns to: the state of the world enmeshed in COVID-19, our feelings of heightened stress, our hope for a return to normal, and a review of the difficulties and uncertainty of the future. As the wife of a physician who works at a hospital I am often asked: What does your husband think? When does he think this will end? When we see friends in the distance while walking they ask him directly whether it is safe to visit with their elderly parents/children and grandchildren or have them over for holidays, about how it will be possible for schools to open, and when a vaccine might be developed. The questions are many, but they are singularly focused. It is all about when we can finally let our collective guard down and return to normalcy. There are no definite answers, but there is comfort in sharing the questions, thoughts, opinions, and information. It is as though the entire world has become a support group. In stark contrast, during the time between my first awareness of Jonathan’s illness and his death by suicide my family and I endured on our own, in secret and isolation, without support.

Reliving these painful emotions and feelings of helplessness and uncertainly in the context of COVID-19, I believe that not only do they correspond to those emotions experienced by parents of mentally ill children, but the need for communal support is similar as well. Sharing frustrations and anxiety with friends makes things somewhat easier to bear and we might even get some new information or ideas on how to cope. Though our situations are unique, we do not need to suffer alone in our emotions. We can be “alone together”. It’s my hope that we can achieve this same ability to reach out in support when dealing with mental illness. Sharing our humanity helps us all. As with COVID-19, every life might not be able to be saved, but we can heal ourselves and move forward.

About the Author
Ruth Tepler Roth received her MS from the Columbia University School of Social Work and an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business. She has previously worked in the field of marketing and sales in the healthcare industry as VP of Marketing/Sales at an insurance company specializing in mental health/substance abuse services, and more recently as director of admissions/PR at a private yeshiva elementary school. She is a wife, and a mother of three children - two daughters, and a son, who took his own life. As one would expect, this cataclysmic event in her life caused a major shift in her awareness and thinking about mental illness and she devotes much of her time and energy to help destigmatize mental illness, and to be supportive of people who struggle with their own mental illness, and parents and siblings of those who suffer from a mental illness. She writes on topics related to mental illness awareness in daily life. It is more than a worthy cause; it is part of what heals her.
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