More than two years into the worst pandemic in more than a century, it will become a blip on the radar of history. But harrowing stories about its punishing path of death and destruction will linger for years.
More than six million people worldwide have reportedly died from COVID-19, which is roughly the number of European Jews killed during the Holocaust and slightly more than the prisoners of war, Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and other victims that Nazi Germany targeted. That’s an astonishing statistic and the official death toll, but the World Health Organization is now suggesting that the true number could be closer to nearly 15 million.
While suicides dipped slightly in the U.S. and are much harder to measure worldwide, global life expectancy actually declined by about two years. Once again, that’s a shocking stat to fathom. A spike in drug overdoses also has been reported.
Then there’s compelling anecdotal evidence to consider. Isolation and loneliness from lockdowns, masking, social distancing and other lifestyle changes that were thrust upon everyone also fueled mental health and substance abuse problems, as well as violence and crime. We all have a story to tell, know someone who does or have read about strangers struggling.
Just this week, the sudden death of country singer and actress Naomi Judd became a cautionary tale about the need for psychological treatment and support. When initially reported, the cause of death her daughters Wynonna and Ashley gave was mental illness, then the following day it was revealed that she committed suicide. What’s particularly painful about her passing is that she was brutally honest about her struggle with mental illness in her autobiography and interviews. Ultimately, she lost a sense of hope that she held onto so tightly since seeking treatment.
The fact is that millions of people have gone untreated when it comes to their mental health largely for two reasons. One is the stigma that’s still associated with seeking help for anxiety, depression, PTSD and other diagnoses, while the other is a lack of financial wherewithal. These trendlines have been around for years, though it took a pandemic to spotlight the need to make mental health treatment a top priority.
We’ve all seen friends, family members, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers suffer, especially during the past two-plus years. Being forced to work or attend school from home took its toll, and now we’re left with mounting mental health and substance abuse crises. Most 12-step meetings have move online from in-person settings where they’re sorely needed. And many people weren’t able to say goodbye to loved ones who were dying in hospitals where concerns about infection ran highest, or visit assisted-living facilities housing vulnerable populations. Those who are immunocompromised felt the isolation worse than anyone.
It has been a bleak two-plus years, but there are silver linings from this pandemic that we can all take with us for years to come. The aforementioned wakeup call about a worsening mental health and substance abuse crises and need for more empathy is one of them. Thankfully, the forced ascension of telemedicine has made treatment of both physical and mental ailments not only more convenient, but also cheaper. This method also strengthens the protection of patient privacy.
Other positive developments include the corporate wakeup call about the need for more flexible work schedules. We’ve seen a number of trends from the nomadic work movement and growing gig economy to remote and hybrid arrangements, as well as compressed workweeks and a stronger push for paid time off.
There’s also the curbside-pickup option at grocery stores, restaurants, sporting goods, hardware and other businesses that likely will be around as a permanent fixture. And between video conference calling, smartphones and social media, it has never been easier to stay in touch with friends, family or colleagues from afar. So we can only hope that these bright spots continue to help lighten our respective loads, bring us closer together and help us prepare for whatever is lurking around the corner.