“I hope you are taking good care during these stressful and uncertain times.”
We’ve all likely received many emails containing this phrase in the past year. What does it mean to take good care and maintain wellbeing in general? During a pandemic? During a prolonged period of civil unrest?
We began interviewing for the Tobacco Harm Reduction study two months after San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order took effect in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. One year later, with the pandemic ongoing, interviews continue to take place, online, with LGBTQ+ young adults (18-25) who smoke or used to smoke cigarettes. Each participant provides a window into their unique pandemic experience, and I became deeply interested in hearing how people talked about their mental health and personal wellbeing during this time.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has presented a number of challenges to mental health. As a society, we’ve had to navigate varying degrees of loss and grief, unprecedented stress and uncertainty, economic decline and social isolation. Uncertainty is always hard to manage, and while ideally there would be a communal or collective way to manage pandemic stress, in our society the responsibility ultimately falls on the individual to be proactive, to focus on what’s in their control, to move their body and to prioritize the “self” in self-care.
Daily life during the pandemic looks different for everyone, and as participants described shifts in daily routines, rituals and priorities, I noticed that several participants discussed the value of having time for themselves that did not exist pre-pandemic. While some were struggling with newly unstructured time, many were also engaging in healing practices. For instance, Jade, a 23-year-old, queer Chicana cis woman, is a college student whose employment ended with the pandemic, but who had some money saved. Prior to the pandemic, Jade had a busy social life and would regularly get dressed up and go out dancing with friends to unwind. She described how the pandemic shifted things for her:
One of the major things that I do to let off steam and kind of socialize with my friends, is gone. […] I’ve been really ramping up my own mental health, healing journey. So, I started therapy about a year ago now. And so, just this week actually, I joined a support group for adult survivors of child abuse. And it’s my first time ever going to a support group. It was like a really big deal. So, I guess, kind of just like focusing more on my mental health and stuff, because I finally – you know, I can’t distract myself with other people.