Is The End of One Emergency the Beginning of Another?

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By Mekel Harris, Ph.D., NCSP, PMH-C, CAGCS

Today, May 11, 2023, marks the expiration date of the federal public health emergency for COVID-19. Nearly three years after its onset, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced the news based on the current status of the virus. For some, today represents a day of celebration, a release from suffocating rules, regulations, and rigor associated with the pandemic. Others, on the other hand, may ask: is the declaration of the end of a public health emergency the beginning of a mental health crisis wave? 

What remains unclear is the extent to which the global pandemic will continue to significantly impact the already taxed mental health status of many Americans.

COVID-19 brought with it an array of consequences, including loneliness and social isolation, employment loss and financial insecurity, physical health challenges, grief, and death. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (2023), approximately one year into the declaration of the public health emergency, roughly four in 10 adults reported symptoms consistent with depression and anxiety. In addition, rates of substance use, intimate partner violence, and suicide-related deaths increased, with communities of color and youth disproportionately represented. 

Despite efforts to address these issues throughout the past three years, many Americans continue to experience significant mental health and well-being challenges.

A vast majority of previously documented health outcomes were based, to some degree, on the mental and emotional strain associated with the uncertainties of COVID-19. For example, worry and anxiety about the pandemic’s short- and long-term impact reigned in many citizens’ minds. Uncertainty related to changes in daily routines at home, school, and work environment contributed to emotional overwhelm for some. Further, the extent to which COVID-19 would affect the economy, thus, Americans’ financial stability, consumed many households.

Unfortunately, today’s declaration of the end of the public health emergency will likely not eliminate these and other prevalent uncertainties. The stark reality is that while COVID-19 will no longer be identified as a public health emergency, it will remain. Its invisibility will continue to prey on America’s landscape, whether we like it or not.

Therefore, a second, and perhaps more critical, question should be explored: what must we do to take charge of our minds as we transition to a post-public emergency season? 

A few ways to increase mindfulness about our mental health include:

  • Pursuing ample sleep. Creating a quality sleep routine and adhering to a sleep schedule is the bedrock for mental health and well-being.
  • Focusing on nutrition & physical activity. Emphasizing nutrient-rich foods, as well as hydrating the body, helps create a healthy physical environment. This, in turn, can help activate neural pathways between the gut and brain.
  • Maintaining a regular routine. In the face of uncertainty and emotional stress, it can be tempting to deviate from daily routines. However, maintaining a regular schedule increases predictability, which can help you feel more in control day-to-day.
  • Limiting exposure to COVID-19 triggers. Spending time away from news sources (e.g., social media, TV) can create space for you to cultivate hobbies and other healthy emotional outlets, inevitably reducing stress.
  • Focusing on social connection. Explore ways to connect with others by emphasizing close relationships, volunteering, and/or considering participation in sports and hobbies.
  • Setting reasonable priorities and expectations. Be honest about what the declaration means for you and your family, then take steps to set realistic priorities for your mental health.

Is the declaration of the end of a public health emergency the beginning of a mental health crisis wave? Only time will provide us with the answer to this question. In the meantime, be gentle with yourself and do your best to focus on what you can control.

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Dr. Mekel Harris, Ph.D., NCSP, PMH-C, a licensed psychologist/health service provider and CEO of Harris Psychological Services, LLC, Dr. Harris specializes in coping and adjustment to acute and chronic illness, grief and loss, and health-related trauma. She is the author of the memoir, “Relaxing Into the Pain: My Journey Into Grief & Beyond” and creator of The Grief Anatomy Toolkit, and Re-Imagining Life After Loss interactive courses.

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