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Op-Ed: We're in the middle of a mental-health crisis. Many were struggling before the pandemic

Dr. Brad Klontz, financial psychologist
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The overall financial and health impact of Covid-19 is unprecedented.

However, while we can think of little else, we are also in the middle of a mental-health crisis. Millions of Americans are suffering in silence. They are sad and alone. They feel scared and hopeless.

These feelings can become all-consuming and interfere with our lives in profound ways: disrupting our sleep, making it impossible to concentrate, putting stress on our relationships or making it feel like even getting out of bed is too much to handle.

There is a negative dynamic in our culture when it comes to mental illness. We are taught to feel ashamed when we hit an emotional rough patch — as if feeling worried or sad is abnormal. The irony is that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50% of us will experience a mental illness at some point in our lives.

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It turns out that mental illness is normal.

To that point, many people were struggling to keep it together before the crisis. Some had never experienced a mental-health challenge before and are now suffering from anxiety and depression. Some are struggling to adjust to the direct health and economic consequences of the virus — job loss, financial stress, illness and/or the death of a loved one.

Others are being hit hard by the impact of quarantine — feeling overwhelmed while trying to balance work with childcare, being stuck at home with an abusive partner or parent, or being alone for extended periods of time.

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Since it's Mental Health Awareness Month, here are some tips to help you cope with the crisis:

• Know you are not alone. Remember, the CDC reports that 50% of us will experience a mental illness at some point in our lives. I have a strong suspicion that the other 50% are lying on the surveys, but the point is this: You are not alone. Mental illness is just part of the human experience.

• Stop beating yourself up. Yes, many people have it a lot worse than you. Yes, you have much to be grateful for. But that doesn't mean you're not suffering. One of the things that makes recovering from depression so challenging is the belief that a person "should" feel happy and they "shouldn't" feel sad.

Often, they are told this by others (e.g., "just smile" or "just be happy" — some of the worst things to hear if you are depressed). This kind of talk just serves to make people feel depressed about the fact that they are depressed — not very helpful.

There are opportunities all around us, even during a crisis.  Focusing on the opportunities can help you emerge from a crisis stronger and wiser than ever before.
Dr. Brad Klontz
financial psychologist

You are human. Human beings experience profound sadness and grief. Sometimes it turns into depression and can last for weeks or even months.

• Stop comparing yourself to others. Good luck with this one, but maybe you could aim for doing it less. Social comparison is the worst; especially on social media. Remember this: The grass is always greener on the other side of the quarantine.

On social media, you will see smiling faces of couples cuddling on the couch (while you are all alone), parents doing creative activities with their children (while yours are on devices), and people out on hikes (while you are stuck in your apartment).

Studies have shown that happiness is less about the reality of our situation and more about the deprivation we feel when we see others who seem to be having more fun (based on the theory of relative deprivation.) Take solace in the knowledge that, at times, these people feel just as miserable as you do — but they don't post those pictures on social media.

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• Look for the opportunity. The pain is real. It is important for you to take time to honor reality. Spend time keeping a journal about your feelings and talking with a supportive other.

Give yourself permission to cry. It's good for you. It is important that you take care of that part of your experience. However, it can be very helpful if you also, several times a day, shift your attention to looking for the opportunities all around you: opportunities to improve your life or emotional experience right now.

For example, being stuck at home with young children can be exhausting, and there are opportunities to connect with them on a deeper level. Being stuck at home can put tremendous amounts of stress on your relationships and there are opportunities to invest in and improve those relationships.

While it is a bummer that you can't go out to eat, you can improve you cooking skills and eat healthier. There are opportunities all around us, even during a crisis.  Focusing on the opportunities can help you emerge from a crisis stronger and wiser than ever before.

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• Ask for help. Social connection is critical to our mental health. Make it a point to connect with friends and family members daily using technology. Since much of your social contact happened organically prior to the shutdown, you may need to schedule it in now. Don't wait for others to contact you; initiate the contact yourself.

If your mental health has taken a hit and is having a significant impact on your mood, sleep, eating habits, relationships, ability to cope with stress or your ability to manage your life, please seek the help of a therapist.

There is no reason you should be going through this alone and therapy can help. The great news is that there are more opportunities now than ever right to establish a relationship with a therapist using  tele-health services.

—By Dr. Brad Klontz, certified financial planner, financial psychologist and an associate professor of practice in financial psychology and behavioral finance at Creighton University Heider College of Business. He is also a member of CNBC's Financial Wellness Council 

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