Depression is increasing in the United States, in no small part due to COVID-19.
According to recent reports, depressive symptoms are at least three times higher than they were before the pandemic hit, suggesting that the emotional cost of living through this time is enormous.
For those who are vulnerable to depression already, this time is even more fraught.
Al (whose name has been changed for privacy) suffered bouts of depression on and off for years, but had made the decision to go off of his medications near the end of 2019.
Then COVID hit, and it was hard to keep his mood from plummeting.
Similarly, Michelle was already going through relationship struggles and worrying about her child’s mental health before COVID hit.
All of the changes the pandemic wrought exacerbated these stressors, making her feel depressed.
To some extent, all of us may be at risk for depression during the pandemic, says Nancy Liu, clinical professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
We should expect to feel anxious and depressed, as we would in any kind of disaster.
While we are all prone to feeling down these days, depression differs from normal sorrow or anxiety and is far more debilitating, says psychologist Shelby Harris, author of the book “The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia.”
It persists, unrelenting, for weeks at a time and leads to an inability to function normally.
Problems with sleep, significant weight loss or gain, not being able to get out of bed, lacking motivation or a sense self-worth, and finding no enjoyment from everyday activities—these are signs that you may be entering a depressive state.
Depression can also be life-threatening, when it becomes a precursor to suicide. Given the high price of depression, it’s important to understand what causes it, how to identify it, and the steps we can take to counter it.
Here are some of the things we can do until the pandemic ends to look out for one another and stay healthier.
- Get professional help
When Michelle started feeling deeply depressed, she knew she should be concerned, having experienced suicidal thoughts in the past. After her partner expressed concern, she called a therapist.
Liu encourages people to turn to therapy if depressed, because it can be very effective for overcoming mood disorders.
But she bemoans the fact that many community clinics are overwhelmed right now, and some people lack the means to reach help.
If you don’t have ready access to a therapist, you may want to contact your health care provider, if you have one.
See what they have to offer and if you’re eligible for services. Or you can simply ask friends or family if they can recommend any therapists.
In many areas, there are sites that specialize in helping people find local therapists, or you can turn to the Psychologist Locator, a site operated by the American Psychological Association.
- Add small, good things to your life
While professional treatment is ideal, what can people do when they see their mood sinking?
Harris says that it’s important to start adding small things to your life that you enjoy, to fight off feelings of helplessness that often come with depression.
Of course, it’s not always easy to do that now that many of our usual pleasurable activities have been curtailed during the pandemic. Still, it’s possible to adjust our expectations and try new things.
Michelle tried several ways to help snap her out of her funk. One of the most impactful for her was adopting a kitten, whom she came to love.
Michelle also found it helpful to pursue creative self-expression by trying to do short writing exercises based on prompts she found in a book—such as, “What is a time in your life when you said no?” or “What do you think you’re destined to do in this life?”
- Find ways to exercise your body
One of the best treatments for depression is getting physical exercise, while not getting exercise can induce depressive symptoms. Especially during this difficult time, it’s important to take care of your body.
Al is aware of how his physical health affects his mood; so, he’s made sure to maintain routines of self-care, like getting enough sleep, eating well, and getting outside when possible—all of which have been tied to preventing depression.
Though adjustments to his exercise routines were needed because of the pandemic, some of those changes were positive, he found.
When the pandemic ended Michelle’s in-person yoga class, she tried the Zoom version of the class, but found it wanting.
So, she made it a point to find other exercise outlets—like taking walks and bicycling—which made her feel better.
- Foster a sense of agency
For Al, it was important to make progress on personal goals, like improving his piano playing or his golf game.
While it was sometimes difficult to find the motivation and energy when depressed, he found ways to trick himself into getting started, which not only helped him get closer to his goals, but improved his mood.
Having a sense of agency—the sense that you have some control over what happens to you—is important for staving off depression, says Liu.
But that can be hard now, when so many people are working from home and finding blurred boundaries between their job hours, home life, and time for self-care.
She suggests it’s a good idea to create structure in your day, to make sure you schedule things that are important for your wellbeing.
- Try meditation and self-compassion
Sometimes, though, negative thoughts get in the way. Maybe you feel you don’t deserve to do nice things for yourself or you aren’t good enough to reach your goals.
For that, Liu suggests practicing self-compassion. After all, she says, we are going through a global pandemic and are not going to be the best, most productive versions of ourselves…and that’s OK.
It can also be extremely useful for people to consider doing a daily meditation practice, to ward off negative thoughts, says Harris.
Meditation can also soothe difficult emotions, helping us focus less on ourselves and be more available for others—another depression reliever, says Liu.
- Reach out to other people
Both Harris and Liu emphasize the importance of connecting with others for preventing depression.
Liu encourages people who are depressed to make an effort to call old friends or family members, take company on your walks (if you can take walks), or engage in other ways with people you care about.
“Social support goes such a long way, even in the face of natural disasters, because experiencing something together creates connection and understanding,” she says.
Written by Jill Suttie.