You’d be wise to seek out mental health tips during the coronavirus: It is, after all, an unprecedented global event that is a cause for concern among mental health professionals.
“This feels different, and it is,” Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California, Irvine, told Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity in a report published earlier this month in Mother Jones . “This is an invisible threat: We don’t know who is infected, and anyone could infect us. This is an ambiguous threat: We don’t know how bad it will get … we don’t know how long it will last. And this is a global threat: No community is safe.”
In a report published this week by The Washington Post , a poll taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation from March 25-30 found that “45 percent of adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19 percent say it has had a ‘major impact.’” For Dr. Lane Cook, chief of Psychiatric Services at the drug and alcohol treatment center Cornerstone of Recovery, that comes as no surprise.
“It’s depressing, to be honest,” Cook says. “I was chatting with a patient of mine this morning, and she was one of the few who said, ‘I’m an introvert, so this is great for me.’ But if you’re not an introvert, it’s not so great. People are depressed more, scared more, anxious more — and there’s a difference between anxiety, which is an imagined fear, and this, because this is real. People are dying from this.”
A Heavy Toll on Mental Health
Unfortunately, many individuals who seek professional mental health tips during the coronavirus find themselves with nowhere to turn, according to a recent report by Business Insider : “Just about 13% of companies provide access to onsite stress management programs and 11% provide mindfulness or meditation benefits, according to data from the professional HR membership association Society for Human Resource Management. Mental health benefits are sometimes looped into employee assistance programs, which most companies offer (79%, according to SHRM), but these programs typically have low utilization rates — usually less than 10% of employees use these programs, SHRM reported.”
The problem, Cook suggests, is that many individuals take for granted the mental health benefits of social interaction — and often don’t realize it until they’re forced to social distance due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We get a lot of good things from other people, so we’re losing out on that,” Cook says. “We’re not getting the benefit of camaraderie.”
In East Tennessee, where Cornerstone of Recovery has served the recovery community since 1989, the lack of those benefits may have contributed to a sudden spike in suicides.
“Last Friday, I was stunned to learn we had eight suicides in Knox County in one day,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said earlier this week . “COVID-19 is a viral pandemic, but it’s also a pandemic that can produce hopelessness in people when they’re faced with losing their jobs, or losing their business or losing their health or losing their parent. It’s an imminent threat to the lives and livelihoods of our neighbors.”
In many cases, Cook points out, the current coronavirus crisis has precipitated mental health struggles for those who may have never experienced them before.
“A lot of times, we’re the last to know. Someone may say, ‘I think you’ve got a problem,’ and our first reaction is usually, ‘No I don’t!’” he says. “Sometimes, it takes another person to say, you’re not yourself.”
So What Are Some Mental Health Tips During the Coronavirus?
Pay attention to the signs. If someone suggests you seem depressed, Cook says, don’t dismiss it out of hand. More importantly, if you feel mentally unbalanced, don’t dismiss it as something trivial.
“The gateway symptoms of depression can include one or both symptoms: feeling sad/blue/down in the dumps, or a loss of interest,” Cook says. “Men, especially, express it as a loss of interest. Is it, ‘I can’t hunt and fish because I can’t, or because I’m no longer interested?’ If their particular hobbies are things they enjoy but can’t because of stay-at-home rules, that’s different. Look around: There are still people out there playing golf, because that’s one of those things you can do and socially distance. But if you can do it but no longer want to, that may be a sign.”
Get creative. Few things can take the place of actual in-person interactions, but social distancing can be overcome with online applications like Zoom and Skype, which allows for face-to-face connections with other people. For those who may need to schedule mental health appointments, they can be a game-changer, Cook says.
“Things like Zoom are free software, so that anybody with a phone can do it,” he says. “Another great thing is that (health) insurance (companies) have relaxed their restrictions on telemedicine. It used to be you could only do it when there was a clinical person, like a nurse, on the other end. Now, even the Centers for Medicare (and Medicaid) Services are saying you don’t even have to have video capabilities, if you just want to call people.”
Another digital application that allows people to connect with like-minded enthusiasts of various hobbies and interests is Meetup, he adds.
“You can find a Meetup group for any kind of thing — if you like to crochet, there’s a group for it,” he says. “And that’s really important, because people who do those kinds of social activities, they’re suffering. You can’t go bowling; you can’t play basketball — they’re even taking the hoops off of the goals in public parks. So you’ve got to be creative in order to stay connected.”
Limit your exposure. That applies, of course, to the general public, some of whom might be carrying the virus, but also to news outlets. Cutting back on your consumption of around-the-clock COVID-19 coverage is one of the best mental health tips during the coronavirus, Cook says.
“You’ve got to put limits on watching the news, because it can make people really depressed,” he says. “Watch your intake, because it’s easy to get demoralized, so you should be on a strict diet of information.”
“I don’t know how many times a day I say that to people,” he says. “I start out every telemedicine visit with, ‘How are you coping?’ And we start off from there, but most people, if they’re taking it a day at a time, tell me, ‘Considering the circumstances, I’m doing OK.’”