Mental Health and its Importance during the COVID-19 Pandemic

As news about the coronavirus outbreak continues to dominate the headlines and millions of people—in the U.S. and the world over—are being asked to self-quarantine, it has become increasingly significant to pay as much attention to our mental health as we do to our physical health. 

“Pandemics such as the one we are currently grappling with often ignite fear, anxiety and erratic behaviours,” says Dr. Kelly Vincent, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Encinitas, California. “When fear takes control, both our nervous system and emotional part of our brain go into overdrive. This response can lead to impulsiveness, panic and feeling out of control emotionally,” she says. “If a person has a pre-existing mental illness or history with anxiety and depression, it can often worsen and intensify during times such as these,” Dr. Vincent points out. If the stress and anxiety worsen then “it may trigger negative physical symptoms such as an elevated heart rate, insomnia, digestive issues, weakness and fatigue,” tells Dr. Janine Kreft, an Austin-based clinical psychologist. 

If you’ve been feeling anxious, frustrated, angry or downright confused lately, know that you’re not alone—we are all in this together.

Within weeks, the familiar symptoms of mental illness can become universal reality. A new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly half of the respondents saying that their mental health was being harmed by the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly everyone on this planet is experiencing varying degrees of grief, panic, hopelessness and paralyzing fear. If you say now how terrified you are, the most common response you will get is “What sensible person isn’t?”

But that response can cause us to lose sight of the dangerous secondary crisis unfolding alongside the more obvious one: an escalation in both short-term and long-term clinical mental illness that may endure for decades after the pandemic recedes. When everyone else is experiencing depression and anxiety, real, clinical mental illness can get erased.

While both the federal and local governments have responded to the spread of the coronavirus in critical ways, acknowledgment of the mental illness vulnerabilities has been hasty. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has so far enlisted more than 8,000 mental health providers to help New Yorkers in distress, is a fortunate and much welcomed exception.

The Chinese government moved psychologists and psychiatrists to Wuhan during the first stage of self-quarantine. No comparable measures have been initiated by our federal government.

The unequal treatment of the two kinds of health — physical over mental — is frighteningly similar with our society’s current disregard for psychological stability. Insurance does not offer real uniformity of coverage, and treatment for mood disorders is generally deemed a luxury item. Given the fact that we are facing a dual crisis of both physical and mental health, those facing psychiatric challenges deserve both acknowledgment and treatment.

There are roughly four responses to the coronavirus crisis and the social isolation. Some people take it all in stride and rely on a foundation of unshakable psychic stability. Others constitute the worried well, who need only a bit of psychological first aid. A third group who have not previously experienced these disorders are being catapulted into them. Last, many who were already suffering from major depressive disorder have had their condition exacerbated, developing what clinicians call “double depression,” in which a persistent depressive disorder is overlaid with an episode of unbearable pain.

Social isolation generates at least as much escalation of mental illness as does fear of the virus itself. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist, found that social isolation is twice as harmful to a person’s physical health as obesity. For example, solitary confinement in prison systems causes panic attacks and hallucinations, among other symptoms. Isolation can even make people more vulnerable to the disease it is intended to forestall: Researchers have determined that “a lonely person’s immune system responds differently to fighting viruses, making them more likely to develop an illness.”

In order to improve your mental and emotional wellbeing, here are a few handy strategies to help you during these trying times:

Reduce Social Media & News Input

“I would encourage everyone to limit their exposure to the news and to customize their social media feeds—by following more accounts and pages that make them feel good—regardless of the current pandemic,” says Dr. Kreft. “Your brain is built to problem solve. And when you are already feeling fearful, it naturally seeks out stimuli in your external environment to reinforce the feeling of fear. The brain then deletes, distorts and generalizes all incoming information that does not align with your current emotional state or beliefs. So, if you spend a significant amount of time following the news, it reinforces more reason to worry— thus creating a vicious cycle.”

Get your Information from Trustworthy Sources

Some legitimate and reliable sources of COVID-19-related news and updates include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), John Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “It is helpful to adopt a more analytical approach as you follow news reports about the coronavirus. You will also want to verify information that you receive from family, friends or social media,” says the American Psychological Association (APA). Moreover, “consume only what you need to know, what’s most relevant to you and particularly what is happening or anticipated in your own community,” suggests the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Maintain Connections with Friends & Family

“Maintaining social networks can foster a sense of normality and provide valuable outlets for sharing feelings and relieving stress,” states APA. “You can maintain these connections without increasing your risk of getting the virus by talking on the phone, texting or chatting with people on social media platforms,” it adds. In addition, you can take virtual tours together of museums, national parks and other sites via Google Arts & Culture, tune in to live-streamed concerts and other events or play online games with friends, suggests NAMI.

If the symptoms of stress and anxiety get any worse and you feel it is impairing your ability to function, please speak to an experienced mental health professional at the earliest.  “For anyone who is unsure about attending therapy sessions outside of home, especially those who the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has described as being at higher risk, you can ask your health care provider about tele-therapy or mental health services online,” notes NAMI. 

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“Protecting Mental Health during Epidemics” Study prepared by Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Rehabilitation Unit Technology and Health Services Delivery Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), originally appeared in Spanish.