San Francisco’s air quality has remained terrible over the past week, forcing denizens of the city to seek shelter inside — often at the expense of socializing with loved ones, family members, and casual acquaintances. Suffice to say this period of isolation has taken a toll on many people’s mental health.
Amid a worsening pandemic and tumultuous socio-political panorama — one only exacerbated by red in tooth and claw election ads — 2020 has proven to be a taxing year. And now: we're contending with Blade Runner-like skies and horrendous air conditions that would rival those found in an operational coal mine. It's not been easy to keep one’s mental well-being intact these days, which is proving to fuel depression and feelings of isolation in our seven-by-seven slice of Northern California (and beyond).
An episode of depression can occur suddenly, even when things in life seem fine. While depression has potential causes, understanding what triggers it is vital to maintaining good mental health. https://t.co/1Mt2qjKJIs pic.twitter.com/enV2KpclIQ— BetterHelp (@betterhelp) September 10, 2020
"In Seattle, Washington where it's raining all the time people get seasonal affective disorder and that is a form of depression caused by clouds, rain, fog and we are kind of experiencing that now," says doctor of clinical psychology Andrea Zorbas to ABC7.
These low-moments of despondence, feelings of isolation, and listless depression countless San Franciscans are feeling have only been megaphoned by the prevailing pandemic.
When COVID-19 first grabbed society by the loins, clinical therapists in the Bay Area had to adopt a not-so-new form of counseling, as well: teletherapy. And some worry that a lack of having "in-person sessions" available will only add to the levels of unease numerous San Franciscans are presently feeling.
“I worry in-person sessions will become less frequent as mental health practitioners realize they can save money by closing their physical offices and transition to entirely online platforms,” said somatic psychotherapist Erika Shershun to The Bold Italic in early May. “But the refreshing and energizing resonance between two people sharing the same space really can’t be replicated online. I’ve also noticed that some people can get anxious or become self-conscious while on video calls.”
(While having enjoyed a surge of popularity since the app-boom of the early 2010s, many therapy seekers still favor in-person sessions over those conducted on the phone or through text, or via video conferencing; many practicing therapists have also opted to move completely online now amid social distancing norms and growing financial pressures.)
Now with the smell of smoke hanging in the cityscape, locals are again finding themselves spending hours upon hours behind a screen (be it binging Netflix movies, watching digital drag shows, or attending Zoom teletherapy sessions) — contemplating the year’s tallying "existential" catastrophes.
Ok, per popular request here is the latest smoke model. Be advised this is considered experimental and thus we havent been able to run an updated simulation since around 5 am. Nonetheless the idea of modest improvement by this evening is captured as southwest winds arrive. pic.twitter.com/dZ1iS0cru6— NWS Bay Area (@NWSBayArea) September 13, 2020
"Every day is an existential crisis," says longtime San Francisco resident Viola Chen to SFist. "I was already struggling just with coronavirus, but the wildfires have taken away the outdoors, too. It was one of my few joys during the pandemic."
Chen, like most inhabitants of the city, feels like she and her husband are going stir-crazy as this “unnerving new normal” unfolds... twiddling their thumbs and "anxiously reading the news" while hunkering down inside.
"Now [my husband and I] stay cooped up at home, anxiously reading the news, checking to see if my family in SoCal will need to evacuate," Chen continues. "I'm scared shitless by what's happening here and along the West Coast."
This opaque atmosphere and hazy horizons are also proving to usher in episodes of rejected nostalgia, as well.
"All the smoke reminds me of the fires we had three years ago and how masking wearing was at the top of people’s minds," explains SF-based creative Anthony Rogers to SFist. "I’ve stayed inside for the week since the air quality began to surge into the unhealthy. It’s sad that it takes a more visual indicator for people to say 'gosh I should wear a mask, I see raining ash.'”
"For me, that’s where my mental state fluctuated," Rogers waxes, adding that these feelings of exhaustion he — and others are also experiencing, he speculates — are in part because of the "mental gymnastics" necessary to get through the day. "I think in the end, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics of how going outside, whether COVID or air quality, really impacts your day-to-day life.”
Feeling sad and weird today (re: fires, hurricanes, plague, deadly racism, justified rioting, sad-kid schooling at home, grinding election fatigue, economy hellhole, menopausal uncertainty, climate meltdown, adult acne)— evany (@evany) August 26, 2020
^^^Evergreen newnormal in perpetuity forever squared
But it's times like these when clinical therapists and psychologists, like Zorbas herself, recommend reaching out to a close friend or family member for support and consoling.
"On the edge of a crisis at any time and the other person has to be the comforter or the comforted," said one Zoe Young to ABC7, hinting at the very human need for community and connection during times of collective struggle.
Practice some radical self-compassion, right now. It's OK not to feel OK. Don't synonymize your self-worth with how much you can get done in any single day; no one's going to recite your quarterly earning figures or celebrate how tidy your inbox was at the time of your death when you’re being eulogized. Try to stay present and engaged — and sow some seeds of hope that the future can, indeed, be better… if we’re proactive about improving it.
To quote the words of TED Talk extraordinaire, Best-selling author, and University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work professor Brené Brown: You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.
***If you're struggling with feelings of depression, suicide, and general unease, consider contacting a licensed mental health professional. For life-threatening mental health emergencies, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or the San Francisco Suicide Prevention (SFSP) at 415-781-0500.
Image: JD Mason