During the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health among Americans has declined rapidly . In particular, teenagers and young adults are having an especially difficult time maintaining good mental health . Many teenagers do not know how to improve their mental health as this topic is not addressed in many U.S. high schools.
To learn more about this decline in mental health among young adults during the pandemic, I interviewed Dr. Tim Bono, the professor of Positive Psychology at WashU, a course focused on the science of happiness and well-being.
Before I came to WashU, I had not learned a lot about mental health in high school. I first asked Dr. Bono why mental health is more neglected than physical health in American society. He responded, “With physical health, it is very difficult to ignore [any problems].” Furthermore, he said that physical health issues manifest in ways that are usually visible to others as well. In contrast, Dr. Bono said that “the symptoms of mental health are often invisible.” Some common symptoms of mental illness include feeling sad, the inability to concentrate and excessive fears or worries. Thus, it is often hard to tell if someone is struggling with their mental health.
As there has been a decline in mental health across Americans during the pandemic, I asked Dr. Bono if he has seen any of this with his students. He said that there has certainly been “a sense of loss” among his students but that he has also seen a good amount of “resilience” and “optimism” which he finds inspiring.
Then, I asked Dr. Bono how the pandemic has affected teenagers uniquely. He responded that teenagers usually deal with two main struggles even in non-pandemic times: fitting in socially and developing a sense of autonomy. Dr. Bono revealed that “all of these provisions that are important to follow from the CDC are putting a lot of restrictions” on what teenagers can do, making it more difficult to fit in socially and gain this sense of autonomy as they cannot do what they want to as easily.
As there are more people struggling with their mental health during the pandemic, it is more important than ever to check in on people. I asked Dr. Bono for advice on checking in on people during a pandemic, when we may not see our close friends or family for long periods of time. Dr. Bono said that “just letting people know that you’re thinking about them and that you care about them can really go a long way.” It is important to try to see people safely however we can, but simply extending invites to people that you want to check on reminds them that you are there for them.
Finally, I asked Dr. Bono what tools from positive psychology can we use to maintain good mental health even during a pandemic. First, he reminded me that positive psychology is not about being happy all the time. Dr. Bono said that an essential aspect of psychological health “involves understanding that life is hard.” Because of this, it is important to have good coping strategies to help us through the hard times. He mentioned using emotional regulation strategies including journaling and talking to a friend. Additionally, it’s important to maintain social connections even if they are not in person, as they are helpful for maintaining mental health. Dr. Bono also recommended getting exercise and enough sleep on a regular basis, as both help us stay healthy and feel better throughout the day. Finally, Dr. Bono mentioned that allowing structure in our days is really important. This structure can help us build our sense of autonomy and control of our own lives.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, more adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of mental illness than in 2019. Thus, there is no better time to find ways to take care of our mental health. Drawing from positive psychology, Dr. Bono offered some advice in maintaining good mental health even during a pandemic.
Edited by: Irene Antony
Illustrated by: Angela Chen