Years ago, I ran a half-marathon and while preparing for this, I had the advantage of knowing when the race was going to happen. I trained for months and built up my stamina to endure the 13.1 miles. I built in rest and recovery each week because I knew that is essential for increasing my body’s ability to run longer distances and to prevent injuries.

In some ways, this pandemic is like an ultra-marathon, except that none of us were prepared and there seems to be no concrete finish line in sight. There was no time to build up our bodies, our bank accounts and our mental health to endure this kind of distance. Almost overnight, our entire world has changed, and we really don’t know what the “end” of this will look like. However, I know that people are resilient, and we will find our way through this storm, together.

It’s important to understand that just as the initial coronavirus outbreak caught hospitals unprepared, the country’s mental health system — vastly underfunded, fragmented and difficult to access before the pandemic — is even less prepared to handle the coming surge of mental health issues that experts predict will dominate the aftermath of this virus. Nearly half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

Just as the country took drastic steps to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by infections, experts say we must brace for the coming wave of behavioral health needs by providing widespread mental health screenings, better access to services through telehealth, and a sizable infusion of federal dollars.

As we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month through a COVID-19 lens, it’s more critical than ever that we take a close look at how we were doing on the mental health front--both collectively and individually—before we were hunkered down in our homes waiting for the storm to pass. Now more than ever, prevention and early intervention are vital as we prepare to build our communities back up.

While 1 in 5 people in our country will experience a mental illness during their lifetime, everyone faces challenges in life that can impact their mental health. That is more true today than ever before. Recognizing our feelings, finding routines that lift us up, removing toxic influences, and connecting with others can all help us on our paths to recovery as we further develop our own mental health supports.

I believe that within every crisis or challenge we face, there are lessons to learn and opportunities for growth and positive change. As we have shut down all our frenetic activity to keep ourselves and others safe, Mother Earth is once again breathing, healing from the pause. Sometimes we have to get sick in order to get better, so I’m hopeful that when this challenge is over, we emerge from our cocoons armed with the tools we need to take care of ourselves, our families and our communities and a renewed sense of urgency to ensure that the mental health of those around us is a priority.

Maybe there’s an opportunity for a new pair of running shoes?

Sue King is President and CEO of Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri.