‘Are you okay?’ Pandemic, politics, and unrest have taken toll

Consider all we’ve been through in the last 1,200 days or so, stumbling, faltering, and finding our way through history:

  • A global pandemic killing more than one million Americans.
  • A political insurrection exposing the fault lines in our democracy.
  • Civil unrest at our doorstep after the police murder of George Floyd.

Three long years later, the pandemic nearly over, another election quickly approaching, we wanted to ask a simple question: Are you okay? The answer for many is fraught and complicated.

A day in May

Several strangers crossing the Stone Arch Bridge on a sunny afternoon were more than willing to bare their souls and share their struggles.

"My last three years have been horrific," said Lydia Coldwell, who went through a divorce, financial difficulties, and sank into a deep depression.

Coldwell also discovered she is incredibly resilient.

"Whatever you have to do to get through, keep doing it," she said. "Don’t let anyone stop you."

But just as the storm clouds are parting for some, for many others there’s a feeling of dread over what may be yet to come.

"I think it’s a more violent and scary time. I don’t think we’ll ever be the same," said Sophia Holmgren.

Sheree Adair said she believes the pandemic interfered with the way people relate to each other.

"I don’t want to ask what’s coming next," Adair said. "It’s already coming with all these mass murders, the unhappiness, the loneliness, and the depression."

Exhausted & disconnected

Dr. Fiyyaz Karim does clinical research on grief and loss at the University of Minnesota. The pandemic added a new and important element to his research. He believes we are collectively exhausted, disconnected, and tired of uncertainty.

"I think the grief and loss has definitely transcended beyond just the pandemic itself," Dr. Karim said.

He believes community losses and traumas have also contributed to the overall psychological impact.

"I think for the last couple of years we've been so reactive versus proactive. And I think that's why a lot of that self-reflection is coming up now, because now we are kind of looking back," Dr. Karim said.

‘Prolonged Grief Disorder’

A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 90% of us believe the country is facing a mental health crisis. The survey found 32% were experiencing symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.

Last year a new diagnosis was added to the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s guide that defines and classifies mental disorders: Prolonged Grief Disorder. It is defined as grief last more than a year after a loss for adults and six months for children and adolescents.

There has been no shortage of grief and loss, and many went through it in isolation. Lisa Mandlie’s uncle was one of the first in Minnesota to die from COVID.

"To know that he was alone in that time is heartbreaking," Mandlie said.

‘Deaths of despair’

And it wasn’t just COVID stealing lives before their time. 

Overall, life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped in the last two years, for the first time in a hundred years. COVID offers only a partial explanation for the drop. The number of excess deaths in the U.S. – so called "deaths of despair" from drugs, alcohol, and suicide – claimed 400,000 people in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Khloea Marie, on a walk around Lake Bde Maka Ska with friends, told us how she lost a nephew to gun violence and a mother to mental illness.

"Losing my mom, I feel like I lost myself," she said. "I’m just searching and trying to find my way."

Multiple studies have shown the pain of the pandemic was never spread equally. Marginalized and low-income communities were also especially hit hard by spikes in gun violence and racism.

And it’s not your imagination, the news is getting more bleak. An analysis of the ‘emotional payload’ in mainstream media headlines saw increases in anger, fear, sadness, and disgust. Those trend lines were in place before the pandemic.

Courtney McLean, an elementary and middle school counselor, saw first-hand the lingering effect remote learning had on kids.

"We’re just doing our best to put ourselves back together, just like adults. But they are more resilient," McLean said.

Water cooler vs. Zoom room

The pandemic left an indelible mark on the workplace.

A total of 85 million people left their jobs since 2021, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. In a recent survey by the Cengage Group, 81% said they had no regrets. For those who stayed, the Zoom room became the water cooler.

Among those still in the workforce, 12% are working remotely, 60% are in person, and 28% are hybrid, according to a recent survey from Stanford University.

The staying power of remote work has come as a surprise to University of Minnesota economist Professor Varadarajan Chari.

"I'm not the only one who made a mistake on this," Prof. Chari said.

"I thought that would be relatively transient. It has turned out to be much more persistent than I expected, then I would suspect the vast majority of economists expected," he said.

Some of it has to do with the economic clout of experienced workers, who are difficult to replace. He believes American’s philosophy about work-life balance may be changing as well.

"If the Madonna song, ‘Material Girl’ characterized the ‘80s, maybe the new song for the 2020s is ‘I'm a Spiritual Guy,’" Prof. Chari said.

A ‘new’ downtown

Prof. Chari added it may take years to know whether the shifts in workplace culture are permanent or long-lasting.

America’s cities can’t wait long. Vacant office space in the Twin Cities is up 12% since last year, with 21 million square feet, according to a recent survey from Colliers International.

In the downtown Minneapolis core business district, the vacancy rate reached nearly 30%, according to data from Cushman & Wakefield.  

Steve Cramer, the outgoing CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, believes the city is pivoting in the right direction by converting office space into apartments and condos and leaning into nearly 1,800 sporting and cultural events scheduled for this summer.

Cramer admittedly worries about a so-called "doom spiral" where bad news about crime and homelessness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"I think anybody who cares about us, can’t rule out that things can go south," Cramer said.

"But one thing that sometimes frustrates me is this sense I have that some people are rooting against downtown. And I don’t understand that. I mean, what did downtown do to you, right?" he asked.

Post-pandemic analysis?

What should we have done differently in the pandemic? How will we handle the next pandemic? Opinions on the Stone Arch Bridge ran the gamut.

"I think we overreacted to the pandemic," said Doug Curtis.

"I think we should have quarantined the old people and should’ve let the young people live their lives," he said.

"We don’t like having difficult conversations," he added.

Those who told us they fared best during the last three years said they were able to maintain connections with family, friends, and co-workers.

Many volunteered that exercise helped immensely with their overall mood.

"I practiced mindfulness during the slow, dark days. Thank God, we have ten thousand lakes," said Tess Montgomery.

Sophia Coldwell discovered the kindness of total strangers the day she and her housemates lost their jobs.

"First day we went out shopping someone heard we lost our job, so they bought groceries," she recalled.

Some people even managed to live their best lives during the last three years. Former Minnesota Gopher defensive lineman Trill Carter missed a season playing football, but he got to spend more time with family and found meaningful connections through social media, he said.

Carter recently got his degree and found love in the waning days of the pandemic.

"I’m just happy to be living my life," he said while holding an ice cream in one hand, and his girlfriend’s hand in the other. He turned and walked across the Stone Arch Bridge towards the setting sun and his future.