It is a generally accepted phenomenon: Any student who takes an intro to psychology course will worry that they fit criteria for whatever mental illness they are studying each week. I imagine the same goes for pre-med students, nursing students, and…maybe dental students(?). Most professors will warn their pupils about this tendency. This never stops students from diagnosing themselves. But it helps.
Let me offer a similar warning: do not give yourself a mental health diagnosis during a pandemic.
You (and your partner or roommates or family) may be stuck inside with only limited outside interaction. The economy is down. People are losing their jobs. For many, the world feels like it's falling apart. You, and those around you, may start acting strange.
Acting strange in a strange situation is normal. We can expect that most people will act strange during a global pandemic.
Even during short disruptions, like being hungry or tired, we struggle to remember to give others and ourselves some room for strange behavior. When irritable, it often feels like a revelation when someone reminds us to eat or get a good night’s sleep. "You’re hangry” or “you didn’t sleep well last night” are easy, reasonable explanations for having a bad time. Still, we forget them even when the connection is clear.
Long disruptions, such as a months-long stay at home order, can begin to feel “normal” and thus, invisible. It is easy to forget that our world is actually upside down. When you look for an explanation for your mood swings, or your fights with your partner, or your lack of motivation to work from home…do not forget how unusual your circumstances are. If we forget how unusual the world is now, how do you explain your (or your partner’s) behavior? You may start to think something is wrong with you. Or with them. Or with your relationship. Or with your job. You may start to think you suffer from bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder, or that your partner is narcissistic, or that your job will never fulfill you.
Remember: it may be more about the situation than the person. If someone is hungry and irritable, we understand that this has more to do with a temporary hunger than an angry personality. If someone is stuck in a pandemic, we would be wise to extend a similar type of grace—to ourselves and to others.
Be patient. Avoid the temptation to attribute the negative effects of an unusual, temporary circumstance to your own mental health. Or your partner’s. Or…well you get the idea.
Two notes before you go:
First, there are more- and less-effective ways of dealing with stressful situations. Please do not take my words as permission to act out during stress. You can damage to your relationships, your health, and your career because of your behavior during a pandemic. (If you worry about ruining these during COVID-19, consider reaching out to a therapist to learn how to cope with the stress.)
Second, mental health disorders do tend get worse under intense or prolonged stress (such as coronavirus stress). For folks already coping with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health disorder, COVID-19 is making their already-heavy burden even heavier. I especially encourage these individuals to contact a therapist if they haven’t already (preferably one with whom they already have a relationship). They should also use friends, family, and coping skills to tolerate the stress. Of course, relationship flaws get worse under stress as well. Weeks of being together can expose cracks in any relationship. These relationships would improve from addressing these flaws (and you may not kill each other in the meantime). And of course, there are roommate and family relationships which suffer from poor communication or personal insecurity. The novel coronavirus has excavated these for you. Figure out how to improve them. Therapy is a good option, but it is also only one way to improve these things.