The current pandemic has made everyday life feel difficult. Going to the supermarket, eating at a restaurant, or entertaining a visit from grandkids suddenly feels challenging amidst the pandemic. Couple that with social unrest, uncertain political times, and the financial strain people are feeling, many Americans are facing complex circumstances that may influence their mental health. A recent study shows that a third of Americans lose sleep over economic concerns and poor sleep may lead to frayed nerves, feelings of irritability and loss of productivity.
During this stress-filled year, Zach Iscol, New York City Comptroller candidate, speaks about improving mental health through his lens of hard-earned pragmatism borne from experience and unfettered optimism. Iscol, a veteran Marine, co-founded the Headstrong Project, a non-profit that provides cost-free mental healthcare to veterans and their families, after watching fellow veterans grapple with mental health issues.
Earlier this year, Iscol served as the Deputy Director of the Javits Medical Center, a COVID-19 treatment facility that treated more than 1,000 patients in Manhattan.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity.
Jordan Davidson: There’s clearly a health toll caused by the pandemic as people around the world get sick, but what are you noticing about the effect on mental health?
Zach Iscol: The mental health consequences coming out of this pandemic are going to be enormous. And we need to start preparing for it now. When I was leading the Javits Medical Center, I’d meet doctors and nurses at the 7 AM and 7 PM shift change, and I’d meet with patients and caregivers. They weren’t just suffering from COVID, they were traumatized by it. Their families were traumatized by it. The doctors and nurses and paramedics that were working with patients with COVID-19 were traumatized by it. And now you’re seeing it across the city. We’ve lost a greater percentage of New Yorkers in the last nine months than we’ve lost troops in the last 19 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s extraordinary.
Davidson: How did your time in the Marines inform your current observations?
Iscol: We’ve lost more Marines to suicide than we did to combat. That’s a warning call. We now need to do everything we can to make sure we never say we lost more New Yorkers to pandemic-related suicide than we did to the pandemic.
“I live my life every day for the men and women who didn’t make it home.”
Davidson: Wow! That’s troubling. What are you seeing that may lead to trauma in people who do not have COVID-19?
Iscol: The drivers of suicide are adversarial experiences that lead to trauma: We have kids out of school that are quarantining amidst skyrocketing rates of child abuse. There’s increases in domestic violence, job loss, divorce and loss of businesses that people spent decades building. These are all drivers of trauma and suicidal ideation.
Davidson: What would you like to see the city do about it?
Iscol: The city needs to prioritize the mental health of all New Yorkers. It needs to start pulling in experts and figure out how we are going to have the things we need to make sure that people can improve their mental health. It will be one of the biggest challenges this city faces going forward.
Davidson: That’s a policy level, but what should individuals be doing to take care of themselves?
Iscol: There’s no end. It can start with something as simple as taking a walk outside. Mind-body work around meditation, exercise, and eating a healthy diet are all incredibly important steps to improving mental health. A healthy diet is remarkable in terms of what it does for mental health.
Davidson: If we opened mental health hotlines, would everything work out?
Iscol: No, that wouldn’t work. The biggest thing I’ve learned in over a decade of working with veterans is that most people suffering from trauma don’t know they need help.
Davidson: Is that something you've experienced?
Iscol: When I came back from war, I had sleepless nights, I had anxiety, I had post-traumatic stress, I had survivor's guilt. I didn't know what it was. I didn't have a name for it. Really post-traumatic stress is a survival mechanism. It's an inability to turn off the flight or fight response. That hypervigilance and restlessness are good things when you're in a dangerous environment. The problem is when you come home, and you're expected to be a parent, spouse, boss, or an employee, that's when those symptoms become prohibitive.
Davidson: What do people do to deal with those prohibitive symptoms?
Iscol: That’s where we see problems develop. Sometimes the only way to turn it off is through drinking or some other form of self-medicating. Most people don’t make the connection that they’re treating a symptom of a disease.
Davidson: Then what can be done to bring awareness to their trauma?
Iscol: A big thing that needs to happen is educating people about what these things are that they’re dealing with. Not only do we need to enable people to have access to care, but they need to know that they need care. Mental health is not clearly seen like a broken arm or a cut on your hand. Most people will think, ‘I’m just an anxious person.’ They don’t see that what they’re dealing with is treatable.
“We need to provide people with access to care. Trauma is treatable.”
Davidson: That speaks to a necessary investment in education and the destigmatization of mental health issues.
Iscol: Sure. Teaching people could also prepare them to be on the front line in a sort of battle-buddy system to take care of each other. That speaks to something that’s really important, which is to find ways to put meaning into your life. Finding meaning in being a survivor is something that really helped me after I returned from combat. I live my life every day for the men and women who didn’t make it home.
Davidson: How does finding meaning in being a survivor carry over to the pandemic?
Iscol: Coming out of this, we need to create a better city, and we have to give meaning to the lives of all the people we lost during this. We can make it a fairer and more equitable city.
Davidson: That’s looking at the future, but what about the people feeling that trauma now?
Iscol: One of the biggest things I can say is, get help. I can’t emphasize that enough. Trauma is treatable. Really, trauma is treatable. Don’t think you have to live with it. We need to provide people with access to care. Trauma is treatable.
Davidson: What about the feeling that everyone is a danger? Everybody I see not wearing a mask feels like a threat to my health, so going out is a high-anxiety activity.
Iscol: Those feelings are ok. It’s ok to have anxiety. It’s good to recognize that, and to protect yourself. It’s important to make sure that we’re ready for when the pandemic ends and we don’t continue to live with that fear of strangers and that state of mind.
Davidson: In the short-term what can we do to stay healthy but also preserve our mental health?
Iscol: Go out at the break of dawn when fewer people are out. We need to invest in parks and open spaces so people can do that. They’re known to improve mental health. We should make sure we prioritize mental health over cars and parking spaces.