Slammed Against the Wall Our capacity to adapt to mental health challenges is exhausted

WATCH FREE LIVESTREAM: Voices of Monterey Bay and NAMI Monterey County present “Beyond Medications: Evidence-Based Treatments.” 6 p.m. Feb. 17


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By Joe Livernois

It’s showing up on social media posts. You can hear it in the voices of neighbors as they try to string words together, as they struggle to show enthusiasm. More people seem to be hitting the Pandemic Wall.

Even after the Nov. 3 election — or because of it — outsized rage about the behavior of others has not abated. Our patience is tested with the start-and-stop nature of stay-at-home orders. Our capacity for grief seems to drain away with the daily news of debilitating sickness and death of beloved family members, friends and public figures. Our composure is aggravated by unfulfilled promises about the availability of vaccines.

I asked acquaintances on social media if they are feeling it, if the Pandemic Wall is real. “Been staring at that wall for many months,” said one. “My mental health is deteriorating,” said another. “Feeling overwhelmingly homesick lately as well as exhaustion from perpetually mourning the loss of people, experiences and general comfort,” added another. Even those who work in the mental health field are not immune. “The isolation and lack of connection is getting to me,” said one. “Overall I am doing okay but definitely have had moments of depression and anxiety.”

Others mentioned fear of what’s ahead, after the restrictions are lifted. “I think ‘reentry’ will strangely be harder than we expect,” said one. “In a way that is a wall I’m expecting to hit. It will be a reverse adjustment.”

Much of the aggravation these days seems to be directed at others, at people who don’t wear masks, at virus deniers, at the government officials who can’t deliver vaccine fast enough — or, conversely, at people who do wear masks, at those who trust science, at people who believe in the vaccine.

Someone this week told me she discovered the technical name for what we seem to be experiencing these days: acedia. The word was apparently coined by ancient Greeks and, as explained by a 5th century monk named John Cassian, described a condition he referred to as “the noonday demon.”

“A mind ‘seized’ by this emotion is ‘horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room,” according to Jonathan Secher, a research fellow at Australian Catholic University, citing Cassian’s work. “‘It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or devote any effort to reading.’ He feels ‘such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast. Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.”

Acedia was a common affliction among solitary monastics who spent too much time alone or who delved too deeply into their own mind, an affliction that has been forced upon most of us for the first time in our existence.

“People have hit their tolerance level,” said Bonnie Bufkin, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Carmel. She said people she sees have been able to make the needed adaptations to their routines and to their mental health for the past year, but the process is exhausting.

And for people who are experiencing acute troubles, the accumulation of hits is taking its toll. “People who have lost their jobs, who are having financial problems, who have suffered family losses, people with pre-existing mental illnesses — it becomes more and more difficult to come back,” Bufkin said.

Professionals who work with people dealing with mental health issues stress the importance of staying in touch with others, especially during a time when the public has been asked to shelter in place, to avoid direct contact with others.

That’s easier said than done for some. Detachment from life is often the very definition of some mental-health conditions, and finding “normal” and equilibrium can be difficult. “My father likes to say that ‘moderation is that wonderful place I pass through to get from one extreme to the other,’” Bufkin said.

But social media and livestreaming have allowed e-connections that weren’t available 10 years ago, and a growing number of people struggling with depression, anxiety and other conditions are taking advantage of Zoom and other streaming programs to participate in therapy and support sessions.

I’ve been involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Monterey County for several years. The agency, known as NAMI, has been offering support-and-education programs to residents dealing with mental health issues and their families for years. Leaders at NAMI say participants in the programs all talk about the isolation and the loneliness resulting from the pandemic.

Voices of Monterey Bay and NAMI Monterey County are collaborating to present a special event on Feb. 17 that presents treatment options for people going through difficult times in their lives. For more details about that program, see “Beyond Medications: Evidence-Based Treatments.”

Monterey County’s Behavioral Health has been offering weekly streaming group sessions in two languages since April. The sessions are led by mental -health professionals and are tailored to specific demographics and needs, including women, teens and older people, among others. A calendar of those sessions are available here.

The national NAMI organization also provides a wealth of useful information, tips, helplines, articles and support forums from a variety of sources.

Specifically about coping through COVID-19, NAMI lists the following reminders:

  • Manage how you consume news and information
  • Follow healthy daily routines as much as possible
  • Take care of yourself through exercise and movement
  • Practice relaxing in the present moment
  • Do meaningful things with your free time
  • Stay connected with others and maintain your social networks.
  • Find mental health resources

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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