March 20, 2020

By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP

The coronavirus can significantly affect mental health for everyone, but especially for those with mental illness. Both the anxiety of contracting the disease as well as the increase in loneliness and isolation can worsen and trigger symptoms. 
Acknowledging, recognizing and acting on mental distress in these uncertain times is key to lessening the impact. 

What are the Mental Health Implications? 

A working knowledge of different mental health implications can help us understand and address the mental health risks of this global health pandemic. Here are the potential symptoms to watch out for. 
Anxiety related to the coronavirus is to be expected. A survey of Chinese citizens published in February found that 42.6% of respondents experienced anxiety related to the coronavirus outbreak.
A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the key worries related to the coronavirus pandemic were:

  • You or someone in your family will get sick 
  • Your investments, such as retirement or college savings, will be negatively impacted 
  • You will lose income due to a workplace closure or reduced hours 
  • You will not be able to afford testing or treatment if you need it
  • ​You will put yourself at risk of exposure to the virus because you can’t afford to stay home and miss work

In a situation like this one, it is easy to become obsessive about disease prevention, especially for those with OCD who already experience contamination obsessions— “unwanted, intrusive worry that one is dirty and in need of washing, cleaning or sterilizing.” 
Social distancing is considered critical to slowing the spread of the coronavirus. However, it can understandably lead to loneliness. Numerous studies have shown the adverse mental health and physical impacts of loneliness, including the potential to trigger a depressive episode. 
Traumatic Stress 
Individuals who have been quarantined may also experience traumatic stress. A survey of people subject to quarantine during the SARS outbreak in 2003 found that nearly 29% experienced traumatic stress. 

What Can I Do?

With the awareness of these mental health risks, we can work towards coping with this challenging situation and reduce the potential impact on our mental health. Here is a list of coping strategies to help get you through these uncertain times.  

Be Mindful of Your News Consumption 

The news can be helpful by encouraging precautions and prevention, but compulsively and obsessively reading and watching about the outbreak can be detrimental to mental health. Here are a few suggestions that may help you follow the news while protecting your mental health.
Limit your sources
Rely on only one or two reliable sources of news as misinformation and bad reporting are rampant. The CDC is a great resource for updates and precautions. You can also select a news medium that allows you to avoid potentially triggering content. For example, when reading from an article on your phone or computer, you can scroll past disturbing photos and quickly reach the information you are interested in. 
Practice acceptance
Accept that the news coverage will not answer all your questions or address all your worries. Accept uncertainty. Trust that officials around the globe and the medical community are trying their best to address the situation. 
Limit consumption
Establish a reasonable rate of consumption, which may be checking for updates one or two times a day. Consume only what you need to know, what’s most relevant to you and particularly what is happening or anticipated in your own community.
Distinguish between global and local
The virus will not necessarily take the same course in the U.S. as it has in other countries. It’s important to think critically about the information provided and not jump to conclusions. 
Ask someone for help
If you feel you need separation from the news, have a friend or loved one filter the news for you, and give you updates based on a reasonable assessment of what’s relevant to you. This will allow you to reduce direct news consumption.
Make a Health Disruption Plan 
Education can be critical to alleviating stress and anxiety. Speak to your health care advisor about coronavirus precautions specific to your health needs, including a health disruption plan. 
Learn about coronavirus preventative and precautionary measures from reliable sources such as the CDC. Make a plan for your household needs —a shopping list, a pharmacy list. It may also help to develop an emergency plan, especially for elderly members of the family. 
Stay Connected 
Stay connected with friends and family by Skype, Facetime, email, messenger and text, especially those who may be isolated. Be ready to listen to their concerns and share yours. Learn effective listening skills to help your friends and loved ones. 
Reflective listening is an excellent communication technique, where you listen to what a person is saying and repeat it back to them. You may help validate their concerns, and show them you understand their concerns, which can help put them at ease. Talking to another person about worries and fears can help, and just knowing that others share them can validate your own fears and worries. 
Social connectedness is critically important to warding off loneliness and resulting depression. There are many online peer support communities to turn to, including those for people with mental illness and their caregivers, such as ForLikeMinds, and for people living with mental illness such as: 7 CupsEmotions AnonymousSupport Groups CentralTherapy TribeSupport Groups18percent and PsychCentral

Take Care of Yourself

It’s essential to make your health a priority during this time. The critical self-care activities are sleep, physical exercise and a healthy diet. Find ways to address forms of stress, such as journaling, going for walks or calling a loved one. Maintaining a sense of normality and routine can also reduce stress. 
It can be especially helpful to practice mindfulness and try not think of the future or worst-case scenarios. There are many online references, including Kindle books on Amazon, YouTube guided meditation and yoga videos, and apps such as Headspace.

Find Things to Do/Distractions

Activities that distract you from current events can be helpful. Here are a few ideas:

  • Household chores, such as spring cleaning, will give you a sense of purpose and accomplishment when completed. 
  • Free online university courses and courses through cousera, such as Yale University’s most popular class ever: The Science of Well-Being. They offer a great learning opportunity. 
  • Movies are moving from theaters to online. Netflix is also a good option. 
  • TV programming has expanded during the crisis, particularly through streaming services like Netflix. You can also currently stream the Met Opera for free. The NFL and NBA are also offering complementary access to online streaming platforms. 
  • Virtual parishes, which the Pope and other faith leaders are offering, can help maintain religious connections.

Help Others 

The helper principle shows that helping others is also a benefit to the helper. In hard-hit Europe and other impacted communities, people are helping those self-isolating by shopping or running errands for them. Canada has developed a movement called “caremongering.” 
Mutual aid communities are developing across the U.S and online organizers have put together an exhaustive list of resources. There area few different kinds of organizing. Some focus on “local efforts to build networks that can respond at the neighborhood or community level,” while others “build networks to serve more at-risk groups, like the immunosuppressed or -compromised, incarcerated folks, and workers who will be out of jobs.” This document enables people who need help to ask for itand this one enables people who can providehelp to offer it.
In these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is natural to experience stress and anxiety. However, an awareness of these stressors better positions us to address them. And there are many tools and coping strategies available to combat the strains on our mental health. 
We are creative creatures. We are also social creatures. So, we are finding ways to remain socially connected while physically disconnecting. Perhaps we will also emerge from this crisis with a better appreciation and respect for our fellow humans and citizens. 
Reliable Resources: NAMI COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Information and ResourcesFind Your Local NAMIAmerican Psychiatric AssociationAmerican Psychological Association: PandemicsAnxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Psychology Today Therapist Directory,Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). SAMSA Disaster Distress Help 800-985-5990, NAMI Helpline 800-950-6264, Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255.
Author’s Note: Sending prayers to everyone in our community.

Katherine Ponte is a mental health advocate, writer and entrepreneur. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness, and Bipolar Thriving, a recovery coaching service for caregivers and their loved ones affected by bipolar disorder. She is also the creator of the Psych Ward Greeting Cards program in which she personally shares her recovery experiences and distributes donated greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis. She is also on the board of NAMI New York City. 


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