If you listened to the news over the last few weeks, chances are that you heard at least one story about the pervasive and worsening mental and emotional toll caused by COVID-19. For example, a Kaiser poll conducted in mid-July revealed that 53% of U.S. adults reported diminished mental health due to COVID-19 (Panchal et al., 2020).
Given the far-reaching impact of the pandemic on mental health, what role might compassion play in addressing it? Could a compassionate response to our collective suffering help cultivate a greater sense of shared humanity – one that enables us to see each other more clearly, experience greater empathy, and act in ways, big and small, that alleviates suffering?
According to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, individuals are currently experiencing insecurity, confusion, emotional isolation, and stigma, while communities are suffering from economic loss, work and school closures, and insufficient resources for medical response (Pfefferbaum & North, 2020). Our social bonds and interpersonal connections have been disrupted in unprecedented ways. The indefinite and seemingly endless nature of the pandemic makes us feel helpless, vulnerable, and frustrated. Social distancing may be an effective infectious disease control measure, but it also can encourage feelings of loneliness and isolation. Grandparents are unable to hug their grandchildren, individuals have gone countless months without seeing their long-distance partners, children miss their schoolmates, individuals watch holidays pass by without companionship and celebration, and many who have lost loved ones are left to mourn alone. Additionally, the hyper-vigilance required to take necessary safety precautions (e.g., quarantining, social distancing, mask-wearing) – and the inability to do so, if you are an essential worker, take public transportation, live in crowded conditions, or are unable to access PPE – heightens COVID-related stress and anxiety. The loss of routine, purpose, livelihood, and connection is impacting us all, albeit in different ways.
Compassion is a response to suffering – whether physical or mental – that promotes well-being and the alleviation of that suffering. We understand compassion as having three core elements: (1) Awareness: cognitive recognition of suffering, (2) Empathy: emotional resonance with the suffering person, and (3) Action: a commitment to alleviate suffering. This framework can be useful in addressing mental suffering during COVID-19 and beyond.
Compassion begins with awareness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are experiencing the greatest COVID-related stress include those at high risk for severe illness, children and teens, caretakers, frontline healthcare workers, essential workers, people with existing mental health conditions, people who struggle with addiction, those who are unemployed, those experiencing homelessness, individuals who suffer from social isolation, people with disabilities, and people in certain racial or ethnic minority groups (Mental Health and Coping, 2020). Many of us fall into one of these at-risk groups, and most of us know or love someone who does. A compassionate response to COVID-19 begins with acknowledging and recognizing that we are all touched by the suffering caused by the pandemic. Even in our isolation, the suffering of COVID-19 can be a profoundly shared human experience.
Awareness of suffering leads to the second component of compassion: empathy – an emotional resonance with the pain or suffering of another person. In the context of COVID-19, it may be easier for us to experience empathy because so many of us are now suffering from mental distress. The shared experience of suffering can open us to offering grace and understanding to others we perceive to be different from ourselves. It can help us see ourselves in another’s shoes. To feel what she feels. COVID-19 presents an opportunity – through our renewed experience of shared humanity – to overcome the stigma so often associated with mental suffering and to reach out to offer support.
The third essential component of a compassionate approach to mental health is action. Action is what differentiates compassion from empathy. Action to alleviate or prevent suffering need not be a grand gesture. It could be as simple as calling to check on an elderly neighbor, writing a letter to a long-distance friend, or offering a seat and a kind word to a stranger on the bus. Collectively, these small acts are powerful.
The pandemic has taught us that behind our face masks are hidden experiences of pain, loss, anxiety, fear, and isolation. In this, we are not alone. A heightened awareness of the mental and physical suffering of others can motivate us all to act on impulses of kindness, not only to those we love but to those we do not know. In doing so, we expand our circles of compassion to include strangers, both near and far, and this can have lasting effects long after the pandemic is over.
– Sophie Leruth and Ashley L. Graham
Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19. (2020, December 9). https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html.
Panchal, N., Kamal , R., Orgera , K., Cox, C., Garfield, R., Hamel, L., … Chidambaram, P. (2020, August 21). The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/.
Pfefferbaum, B., & North, C. S. (2020, August 6). Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic: NEJM. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2008017.