April 7 marks the annual celebration of World Health Day. From its inception at the First Health Assembly in 1948 and each year since taking effect in 1950, the globally recognized day has aimed to create awareness around a specific health theme and highlight a priority area of concern for the World Health Organization (WHO). Over the past 50 years, World Health Day has shined a light on important issues, including mental health, child care and climate change. This year, the focus is on building a fairer, healthier world. As part of the celebration, people around the world are encouraged to participate in activities which extend beyond the day itself — serving as an opportunity to bring attention to important aspects of global health.
A Dutch philosopher Ciano Aydin once described a situation as traumatic when it “violates familiar expectations about someone’s life and world.” Looking back over the past year, much of the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic can be considered collective trauma. If we consider all that has happened throughout the past year, it is impossible to reflect without feeling sympathy for the significant losses that occurred, as well as the need to address ongoing struggles tied to recovery – and it’s important to think about the impact on health from a physical, financial and emotional standpoint.
Many people lost loved ones and, on top of that, may not have had the opportunity to properly say goodbye. Throughout the world, we lost more than 2.8 million people. If you consider the magnitude of that number, it represents nearly half the population of Denmark.
Many people lost their jobs, businesses and income. Navigating a new lifestyle can have a significant impact on one’s identity, sense of purpose and family dynamic. As a result, drug and alcohol consumption have increased and, for some, spiraled out of control. Feelings of depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns have also been on the rise. With limited flexibility to go where we wanted, when we wanted and with whom we wanted; a shift to remote work and learning; and the cancellation of many events, family gatherings and travel plans, increased feelings of social isolation arose. People lost some of their reliable support systems.
Many people who experienced COVID-19 firsthand are struggling with long-term symptoms and the medical community is struggling to understand how best to treat them. Some show physical symptoms, others show impaired cognitive effects, and many more wrestle with the thoughts of what happened to them or their family members. Additionally, many first responders and frontline workers are still grappling with the people they helped or treated while at work.
Considering all these factors, physical, financial and emotional stressors, a renewed focus on health is important and warranted. As WHO shared, the pandemic highlighted the barriers some people face to living healthy lives. As such, many businesses are electing to provide additional mental health resources and broader access to services for employees as they attempt to find footing going forward. But there are plenty of ways to prioritize your mental health on your own. Practicing self-care, shifting your mindset to a more positive attitude, building your resilience and spreading kindness are great places to start.
Let’s focus our attention on support and empathy toward others, as well as kindness toward ourselves. Change your internal script to one of positivity and acceptance. We are often quick to be critical of things that have changed in our lives during the pandemic or negative habits formed — for example, maybe we haven’t gotten as much exercise or daily movement because of a change in our routines — but we can focus on getting back on track and that is much easier when we maintain a resilient spirit and make small changes toward the better.
In celebration of World Health Day, we should all try to acknowledge the past and look to the future with hope, optimism and an anticipation of renewed energy. As difficult as the past year has been, there were also positive situations that arose. In the words of Winston Churchill, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” With this thought in mind, recognize the positive strides we made collectively:
· Reduced our carbon footprint
· Made greater use of information and communication technology
· Abandoned unnecessary travel and time associated with it
· Increased punctuality with few excuses for being late
· Spent time together, grew closer and developed greater appreciation for our families
· Recorded fewer motor vehicle accidents
· Noted fewer crimes were committed
· Saw injustices that had been going on for many years and responded with support
We still face many uncertainties as we move forward, but we have shown strength and determination throughout the journey. We are — and always have been — in this together. For more information about World Health Day, visit https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-health-day/2021.